Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Gentlemen, welcome to the Committee. As you know we did a report a couple of years ago broadly on flooding; this time we are catching up rather than finding out where we are after recent events, although I think all that is pretty self-evident. When you answer, in your initial answer could you just identify yourselves for our records. Could I begin by asking if you could just remind us of what the geometry of flood bureaucracy is, if you see what I mean. Who is responsible for doing what? Are there local bodies? Are there local advisory bodies? When you come to prioritise work, do you decide where the priorities lie? Are you obliged to consult? Just fill us in a little bit on this organogram of flooding.

  (Dr Mance) Certainly, Chairman. I am Dr Geoffrey Mance. I am the Director of Water Management in the Environment Agency and, therefore, have the lead brief on flood defence. I will try to keep it brief. The Environment Agency is the national body charged with delivering, if you like, flood defence on both the coast and the main arterial routes within the context of Government policy and strategy. We are funded in two main ways. One is a levy on Council tax at County Council, Metropolitan Council and Unitary Authority level. The other is through capital grant from Government in the form of MAFF. The level of Council Tax levy is determined by flood defence committees, which are committees of the Agency with an inbuilt statutory majority of councillors from the contributing authorities. They determine the level of income to us from the Council Tax in the form of a levy. They also determine the priority for the use of those funds, whether on different aspects of revenue expenditure or capital and the sequence for expenditure within the context, again, of Government's guidance. There is a priority scoring scheme operated by MAFF which determines the relative priority of capital schemes, for instance. Non-arterial main drainage and some coastal defences are the responsibility of local authorities in urban areas and in rural areas may be the responsibility of the individual riparian owners. This is with the exception of low lying flat areas where there is a system of internal drainage boards which, generally speaking, have a local elected board of members who level a general drainage rate on the community they serve in that particular area. For instance, these are in East Anglia where you have the artificially drained areas of the country, low lying often with pump drainage going into the main arterial drainage that we operate. That is about as brief as I can keep it.

  2. That is very helpful. If I could ask you to illustrate that. In North Yorkshire, I ask you simply because I know the geography in North Yorkshire, where there has obviously been some spectacular flooding, but a lot of scattered localised flooding, now the funding you will have available there then derives from Government grant and whatever the local body decides it will raise in rates.
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  3. Does the degree to which you can carry out remedial work depend on how much they are willing to raise? Is there some indication of what is needed? In Gloucestershire or the counties bordering the Severn, could work be done much more rapidly because they are willing to dig deeper into their pockets than, say, in North Yorkshire?
  (Dr Mance) Again, I will try and keep it concise but it is not that easy given the nature of the system. In your part of the world in Yorkshire, there is a single regional flood defence committee which will cover all of old Yorkshire, following the natural catchment boundaries for the rivers. Clearly, flooding moves with the flow of the river. Nationally we raise about £220 million per annum through a levy on Council Tax across the country as a whole and we receive £30 million or thereabouts as grant from Government. The majority of our income is dependent upon the levy. For any individual capital scheme, such as in say Skipton or Ripon or somewhere such as that, then we would normally expect to receive a grant from Government of around 25 per cent towards the cost of that capital scheme, the rest having to come from the levy. The grant rate from Government in the light of the recent extra funding has been adjusted upwards now for river works.

  4. Funding is hypothecated in the area where it is raised?
  (Dr Mance) It is limited to use in the area within which it is raised in terms of the flood defence committee, yes. It is routed to the councils through the rate support grant system and within that there is a clear indication of Government's expectation of the quantum put in to the Standard Spending Assessments. There is no requirement or need for the council to actually provide that level, they can provide extra or less if they so choose.

  5. Thank you for that. Now then what is your present evaluation, Dr Mance? Where are we on flooding? What is the present situation?
  (Dr Mance) On the ground—

  6. As opposed to where?
  (Dr Mance)—we seem to have had a continuing saga. We launched a major flood warning awareness campaign in mid September, 11 September. We had our first flooding on 14 September and we seem to have had near continuous flooding somewhere in the country ever since. The most pronounced bursts started at the end of October with the storm with all the fallen trees, disruption to rail and road. Then the flooding started in earnest across the country with probably the most widespread flooding for at least 60 years. Certainly in Yorkshire and possibly the top end of the Severn, we have seen the most severe flooding on record. Yesterday we were down to 12 flood warnings, and we had no severe flood warnings in place. We are now back up to 29 flood warnings, we are watching the weather forecast with some trepidation because it seems clear if we have much more rain we will have more severe warnings in place. It seems this event will keep going for some time to come. The whole country is saturated. Any significant rainfall, ie. more than about half an inch, is likely to trip some of our rivers back into floods again.

  7. At what point are you able to sit down and say "Now this is what needs to be done?" How long do you expect you will spend doing it?
  (Dr Mance) Interestingly, the Minister actually requested us to produce a lessons learnt report on the flooding in late September. He has since accepted we need a bit more time to complete that and he has wanted it to extend to cover the recent flooding across the whole country. We anticipate completing that, unless we have further substantial flooding, by the end of February. That will be looking at the lessons learnt across the whole system as we have experienced it during this flood. We expect that to be published by the end of February.

  8. What is your initial view as to why they did appear to be so much more severe this year than previously?
  (Dr Mance) There was an awful lot of rain. It may sound simple but at the peak in Yorkshire we had two months rain in two weeks. We had ten inches of rain in four bursts of less than 24 hours. That meant York, for instance, did not suffer one flood, it suffered four. We had water levels at least 12 to 13 feet above normal continuously for 14 days piled against the defences. I have to say we do not design our defences to be submerged for that length of time. Generally speaking it is amazing that some of them actually stood in place throughout, albeit propped up by the sterling efforts of not just our own staff but the emergency services, local authorities and the army. It was an exceptional event with severe rain. I think the characteristic of this autumn has been the number of occasions we have had one, two, three inches of rain in 24 hours in various parts of the country. We have seen Sussex and Kent experience two or three such incidents. Rainfall of that intensity is unusual or has in the past been unusual in the UK. One has to say it is consistent with the predictions of climate change.

Mr Öpik

  9. Almost as an aside, you are probably not aware of the arrangements made by Montgomeryshire, which I represent, but due to some debate with the Secretary of State for Wales the Environment Agency agreed to an experiment lowering the level of water in the Clywedog Reservoir in order to prevent it going over the top at peak rainfall times. It seems to have mitigated some of the worst flooding, in other words it would have been even worse if that had not happened. Just to ask, would you be willing to consider the same kind of arrangements, subject of course to investigating the experiments in Clywedog, in other parts of the country?
  (Dr Mance) As it happens I was the founding director for the Midlands Region of the NRA—National Rivers Authority—and put in place the formal agreement we had with Severn Trent Water for the operation of Clywedog and, indeed, for Vyrnwy. Where we have reservoirs of suitable type and character, and it is possible to draw them down in anticipation of flooding, we have agreements in place, as far as we are able. We are not aware of others elsewhere where we could do so. Clearly in periods of rain such as we have had, reservoirs very frequently are becoming full, the rivers downstream are bank full or, worse, already out of bank and we are, therefore, very loath to attempt to actually create storage space again in those reservoirs until the river has actually recovered. One of our experiences both in 1998 and now has been the extent to which stories start in the media about flooding having been caused, as one area has been sacrificed for the benefit of another, etc, because reservoir storage or flood storage has not been operated properly. In practice we have had events which have meant that the storage has been full to the brim and worse. We have had design storage areas overflowing because they have been overwhelmed by the scale of water. Telling people we have built a defence arrangement to protect them against the sort of event they expect once every 100 years on average, and they have then experienced this, they are loath to accept you have actually had a more extreme event and the system has worked. It is just we have had storms beyond the design of the system.

  10. I want to talk about the warning codes now. You introduced a new code on 11 September, three days before the flooding, leading some of us to be suspicious that you knew something about the rain that we did not. I wanted to ask how well you felt the new codes worked?
  (Mr Utteridge) I am Bryan Utteridge, Head of Flood Defence with the Environment Agency. The new codes, as we have explained in the written evidence, were designed both in consultation with the people who were going to receive them and our partner organisations. The codes that we have put in place were ones that people felt they could understand. From the evidence we have seen so far we have had no complaints, that I am aware of, that people did not understand what the codes meant and what to do when they received them. Not only did we design the codes in that way, we have an agreement with BBC Weather, and you will have noticed that the codes are now coming over in weather forecasts. We have agreements with local radio and with local TV so that in local areas the codes are explained when we have a flood situation developing. All in all we feel it is a big improvement on what we had before. It was a lesson learnt from the Easter 1998 flood when a lot of people said they did not really understand what the colour codes actually meant.

  11. What criteria do you use to assess the risk of flooding of an individual river? Obviously the Severn would be the one in mine and Paul Marsden's area, how are those criteria applied?
  (Mr Utteridge) We have developed a new flood warning strategy, again as part of the actions from the 1998 Easter floods. In the back of the strategy is an appendices which shows a consistent way of assessing the flood risk across the whole of England and Wales. Our operating regions have used that methodology and that has been applied this time.

  12. A few very short questions. Do you happen to know how many calls were received by the Floodline number over a given period?
  (Mr Utteridge) Yes. If I could try and put that in context. We budgeted on past use, on past experience, for Floodline to receive about 100,000 calls a year. During October we received 150,000 calls, during November we have received 350,000 calls. The assessment that we have done to date suggests that about 60 per cent were received from the hard hit flood areas, 40 per cent from other areas where there had been rainfall but flooding was not actually occurring, so people were, on their own accord, starting to interrogate Floodline to see what rivers were doing in their locality. We have actually recorded significant traffic from Scotland, so Scotland are tapping into the system to see what we are doing.

  13. Did the system cope okay? Did people get through?
  (Mr Utteridge) Dr Mance has mentioned that we will be doing a lessons learnt report. As far as we are aware it appears to have worked well, but with the sort of traffic that we have received we will be looking at that issue very closely in the lessons learnt report we are going to do.

  14. Lastly, would you mind sharing your findings with the National Rail Inquiry Line as well? Moving on, what kind of advice was given by the Floodline? What sorts of things? For example, was there specialist help for farmers? Without going through the whole gamut, the kind of nature of inquiry?
  (Mr Utteridge) Customers, if they have an easy access number, can get a dial and listen service which means if they have the access code they can go straight to their locality and they will receive a recorded message whether any warnings are out on rivers in their locality. If they are wanting information the Floodline operators, if it is basic simple information, have a question and answer sheet that they can deal with or there is a facility to put it through to the Agency's local office if they need further explanation.

  15. Finally, roughly how often are those recorded messages updated?
  (Mr Utteridge) The intention is that as a warning changes for a river the Floodline should be updated as soon as is practically possible after the warning has changed.

Mr Jack

  16. The media managed to find plenty of people who stare down the lens of a camera and up to their armpits in water saying "We did not get enough of a warning. We were told one thing and now look at it, it is up to the first floor in the house". You have given us a pretty good indication that we are in for more rain so your forward forecasting seems to be quite good. Do you think that the information you give people is sufficient to enable them to take proper contingency planning in such a way that their expectations of what flood prevention for them means will mean, for example, that water is kept out of their house because they had enough time to fill up sandbags, seal things up, or is it a question, do you think, that people still do not believe some of the warnings that you have given? How well prepared are people to cope with floods?
  (Mr Utteridge) We have carried out two public awareness campaigns, one last year and one this year, both of £2 million investment. The first strapline we used was "Floods don't just happen to other people" and then we have carried out a further campaign this year. What we have done, last year we targeted just over 300,000 people with information on what to do if you have a warning for your locality. With the new flood warning strategy that I mentioned earlier, and the new flood risk decision box, we targeted over 800,000 people. It does clearly spell out in the information that we have sent what the warnings mean and what the householders should do. What we are doing, also, we are carrying out surveys, public relations surveys, going into flood risk areas, questioning people as to their understanding of the system. What we have found out is that whilst people are acknowledging they are receiving the information, only about 11 per cent so far have taken any action with regard to doing something if a flood comes along. I think that shows that we need to continue with public awareness campaigns because we have a big message to get across.
  (Dr Mance) If I could just add a bit of information to that. Bryan mentioned we are spending £2 million a year, that is the funding provided for the Flood Defence Committee System. To put it in context, Jack Straw announced a campaign to recruit, I think it was, 7,000 new policemen costing £9 million. We do not believe we have yet got the message across to the public and we believe it will require a long campaign to get them to understand about flood risk and the scale of it. If you live in a flood risk area you are more likely to experience flooding than have a home fire. People probably do not perceive it that way so we are having a long campaign to maintain and get that message across.

Mr Drew

  17. Could I take us on to the administrative arrangements and whether you are satisfied with what you have at the moment in terms of the decision making action, responses and so on. You were talking about further streamlining the decision making process when you get a flood alert. Can you explain that?
  (Dr Mance) I am not sure we actually said—Can I just clarify what we said in relation to flood alerts?

  18. The argument would be—from what I have read—there are too many bodies still trying to take different parts of the equation forward in terms of when there is an alert, when the floods actually come.
  (Dr Mance) I think in relation to flooding itself and coping with the emergency response then the roles are reasonably clear. Certainly this autumn there has been very little indication at all of there being significant problems in the operation of major incident plans. One has to say that this summer, because we have radically overhauled the Agency and the Agency's approach in relation to flood defence, we have spoken to every local authority, every police force and every fire brigade in the country to check that their arrangements are aligned with ours. Therefore, because of that activity this summer it is not surprising that the arrangements are sound. I think the lesson for us is that we probably need to make sure we do that every summer to make sure the alignment is clear cut. I think the concern we would have goes back to the Committee's report two years and that is that the arrangements are somewhat complicated and there is a case for rationalising them. If you like, the form should follow the substance of how it should be financed, there is clearly a need for adequate financing for flood defence in the long term. It is a bit like the rail system, if you under invest you are going to get failures. We have had a major flood and we have got by in places by the skin of our teeth without having substantial failures but the risk is always there. I think the finance review which is currently in place, which is also expected to look at the organisational issues, should actually look at how to ensure the funding is there reliably and, therefore, what the organisational arrangements for delivery should be. I think it should be that way round quite appropriately. The best organisational arrangements under funded will never deliver the service and protection the public actually needs.

  19. On that, is there a problem where you are trying to ratchet up organisation in places which have not been used to flooding? I accept that by now, if the arrangements are working in the classic places that I represent like the River Severn, then they are going to work but we have floods in my constituency in places that you would never have predicted because, of course, the water has to go somewhere and that makes it very difficult because you have to rely on local information which may not itself be very good.
  (Dr Mance) I think one of the issues here is—I was making a comment to the Environment Select Committee last week in relation to the development of flood risk areas—we need to be very careful we do not slip into the context of it being the wrong type of flooding. If you are flooded with dirty water in your home it is flooding wherever it has come from. If one goes back to the start of the major flood at the end of October, the media latched on to a number of examples of disruption, such as flooding of the M25, which was nothing to do with the river system or the arterial drainage, it was all about the drainage system built in to the M25. Equally, trying to move across country that morning, because of disruption caused by fallen trees, there was a lot of disruption caused by local flooding which is minor water courses, local ditches and local sewer pipes and things which are blocked and obstructed which give rise to the flooding of a road junction. It may not be fields across, it may only be 30 feet across, but if it covers the road junction it brings the system not to a halt but it disrupts it very badly. I think it is reasonably clear from our experience this time that the maintenance of the non arterial drainage in parts of the country has not coped with the flows of water put on it. That comes down again to the availability of resources to local authorities and possibly, in places, expertise. Historically local authorities have run sewerage agencies for water companies, they have run quite a lot of highway work. A lot of that has migrated away from them now and they do not have the engineering base to oversee drainage work. There is an issue there about resourcing both in terms of quantum of cash but also in terms of expertise.

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