Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Whilst we are on that table, I see in the financial year 1996-97, expenditure reached over £100 million, subsequently over the next three years it declined and then went back up. Can you give us any feel for the factors which led to somebody thinking that £100 million was right in 1996 and then in subsequent years lower sums were okay?
  (Mr Morley) I am not quite sure which chart you are looking at.

  81. Table 1 of document L3, the Progress Report on the Implementation of Recommendations in the Sixth Report.
  (Mr Morley) I suspect this is due to schemes which had been approved in that year by the regional flood defence committees. Of course, if you have a number of big schemes going through in any one year then there will be a variation in relation to MAFF grants and other expenditure. You will notice the overall expenditure has been increasing year on year. I think that would explain the anomaly but if I am wrong on that, I would be only too pleased to clarify it for the Committee.

  82. In the Spending Review, the data that was given, presumably by MAFF, to the Treasury convinced the Treasury at the time that £34 million was right, what suddenly changed to make you suddenly say, "£51 million on top of that"? I want to get a feel as to how the decision-making process works, because things like extreme conditions, climate change—you yourself, Minister, reminded us, quite rightly, of Northampton—are not unknown, all the climate people tell us that more extreme weather is likely to come, all of that would be fed into the decision-making process which resulted in the £34 million, yet one serious flooding incident which I presume could have been predicted magically elicits another £51 million. Tell us about the decision-making process.
  (Mr Morley) A flood of the kind we have just experienced in this country really could not have been predicted. Indeed we had the Northampton floods, we had some previous floods, we have had a series of floods in the last three years which are out-of-pattern in relation to the kind of timescale you would expect for floods of that kind. Within that period, MAFF has been thinking of the implications of long-term expenditure, has been giving thought to the possibility that we may be entering into a period of climatic change where we are going to see more of this kind of weather.

  83. What advice did you get after Northampton which was in the general area for discussion of climate change? Did somebody say to you, "Minister, this is such a long-odds event it will not occur again" and yet two years later we have extreme flooding?
  (Mr Morley) It was not quite like that. The assessment of flooding and flood defence is based on predicted events of 1:50 years, 1:100 years, 1:200 years going up to 1:1,000 years, which is the predicted breach of the London tidal barrier, for example, so there is a level of prediction in relation to the events which is within MAFF's models and within the kind of models of the institutes which advise the Ministry. The fact is we may well be seeing situations where those assessments which have been made on 1:100, 1:50, may be wrong, it may be those assessments are now 1:30 and 1:150 instead of 1:50 and 1:200. We cannot rule that out. The reality is that we do not know for certain and in fact we are committing money for research and development into climate change—about £11 million a year—to try and understand the link between such things as global warming, potential climate change and potential implications through to flooding. The spend has been a rising spend but of course in the meantime we have had reports, such as the one we have been referring to, and what we have seen is this extreme of flooding, the worst since 1947, in some cases the worst for 400 years, the wettest autumn for 230 years. With all those factors it would be irresponsible if we did not take that into account and the additional money is to reflect that and the fact we are going to have to accept we are going to make more commitments to flood and coastal defence. So that is what influenced the extra £51 million.

Mr Drew

  84. Can I look at the relationship between what is obviously scheme driven, which is large capital sums of money, and planned maintenance, inasmuch as there is a danger, with the best of respect to the Shrewsburys of this world, that if you skew it all in terms of the big schemes that even less is available to spend on planned maintenance. Very often that planned maintenance is the only defence those communities, because of the numbers of houses or because of the relative isolation, are ever going to have and there is a danger they will be flooded more regularly because of the backwash and impact of the larger schemes. What is your opinion on that?
  (Mr Morley) There has to be planned maintenance and the funding that we provide from MAFF is very much linked to capital grants, but the Environment Agency budget of course is both capital and planned maintenance. The Environment Agency themselves will draw up their programme in relation to what they think is important for planned maintenance and that does involve such things as river bank maintenance, perhaps an element of dredging, of course they have to maintain screens and there is a fair bit of work they have to do, both in relation to their core functions and also in relation to contracting as well, but it is the Agency which puts that scheme together.

  85. Can I deal with one thing on the back of that which has been put to me on a number of occasions, if we dredged our rivers more regularly that would deal with the problem of flooding.
  (Mr Morley) If only!

  86. Can you put it on the record, once and for all, that is not the case?
  (Mr Morley) Yes. Let me make this very clear. It is true, wherever you go and there has been a flood, people say, "If the river had been dredged it would have solved the problem", it would not. In some cases the difference dredging would make would be very marginal. I am not saying it makes no difference in some cases, but in other cases, big water courses tend to be self-cleaning, they tend to clean themselves out, and actually a flood of the kind we have experienced tends to really clean them out, I can assure you. Where you have tidal rivers, dredging does not make the slightest bit of difference because the volume is filled up by the tides and the level is determined by the tides. In some cases, if you dredge too deep, the banks will fall in, and that will not do anyone any good.

Mr Mitchell

  87. Why are you so opposed to institutional change? We recommended some in our report and you turned it down, then the Environment Agency and others recommended a kind of national joint strategic flood group and you have turned that down too.
  (Mr Morley) Yes, that is right. We did not think a national strategic flood group would do a lot of good in relation to the kind of services provided at the present time with the kind of structures at the present time. I do not want you to think, Chairman, that we are absolutely, implacably opposed to any kind of institutional change. In this review which is coming forward from the Environment Agency, if the Agency themselves think there is a role for some kind of joint flood group of that kind, we are prepared to consider that. We thought very carefully about the recommendations your own Committee made in relation to bodies such as Drainage Boards, for example, and also streamlining the regional flood defence committees which we accept there could well be a case for in terms of reducing the number of local flood defence committees and perhaps breaking up some of the big regions into two or three regional flood defence committees, for example. We are certainly willing to consider that but that would actually require primary legislation, you would have to attach that to a Water Bill that was going through Parliament. We have not closed our minds to any kind of institutional change. I was not enthusiastic about the recommendations from the Committee last time because, of course, they were removing some element of local accountability and local involvement through the drainage boards and through local flood defence committees which I did think, and I still think, was important. I do think that there is a role for local involvement in terms of deciding priorities and deciding local expenditure on flood and coastal defence. I would be reluctant to move away from an element of local accountability and democracy but we are prepared to consider the case for institutional change if a strong case is made.

  88. It must be messy with so many agencies involved.
  (Mr Morley) It tends to work and it tends to deliver. I think also this present situation has shown that the defences that have been put in place have held, they operated to their design standard and in many cases beyond their design standard, and the areas of need have been identified in relation to the structures which are in place. I would not like to say that there were huge failings in the present institutional system.

  89. Are we to take it from paragraph 19 of your memorandum that the proposed Water Bill would allow a move to a single tier of regional flood defence committees?
  (Mr Morley) That is right.

  90. Would you be in favour of that?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, I would not rule that out. I think there is a case for streamlining the system in that way with the proviso, as I say, that some regional flood defence committees, indeed the one that covers our own area, Chairman, are very large. I think if you want to have the connection with local people and accountability you probably have to divide some of the regional ones up, a very big one maybe into three regional flood defence committees, and at the moment they are restricted to ten by statute, which is why you would need legislation to change it.


  91. Would you contemplate reviewing the balance of interests in the committees for flood and water management, flood defence committees, regional flood defence committees, internal drainage boards and representation on them?
  (Mr Morley) Yes. As I say, I have an open mind in relation to how we address this. We have reviewed it once and we did consult widely on it. As you know, there was a lot of response to your Committee's report, which was generally well received, but of course there were bodies, like the Association of Drainage Authorities, who had a difference of opinion as you will remember.

  Chairman: That is a surprise.

Mr Todd

  92. In the evidence we heard from the Environment Agency they drew out the implications of their lack of influence over the non-arterial river courses, the drainage from fields and so on, which often had very substantial impacts on the effectiveness of flood defence in other parts of a mechanism defending a community, and their weakness in gaining the co-operation of other people who may be engaged, for example the local authorities who failed to co-operate with them in inspecting flood defences. Does that concern you, that this typically English ramshackle "well, it is a bit confusing but somehow we muddle through" approach, perhaps just is not suitable for this sort of set-up now?
  (Mr Morley) It is a concern that non main river courses can be responsible for localised flooding, that is certainly very true. In the High Level Targets we have set, one of them is an audit of all the various river defences both private and Environment Agency and local authority. We have asked the Agency to do that audit and to put them on to a database which will give us a clearer idea of what potentially needs to be done in relation to doing this.

  93. That audit will require the co-operation of a number of other bodies, how are we going to achieve that?
  (Mr Morley) I am not aware that there has been any problem in relation to co-operation from other bodies. I think the problem comes when it is determined who is to pay for some of these defences, particularly when they are riparian owned.

  94. We did hear that local authorities were not always willing to even participate in the process of inspection of some of these defences.
  (Mr Morley) It is an ongoing process. All I can say is that problem has not been brought to my attention and if it was brought to my attention I would certainly take steps to do something about that.

  95. That is in the Environment Agency evidence that we have seen, 82 local authorities either failed to reply or blank refused to take part in this inspection process. That does not bode well for this process of getting this audit straight.
  (Mr Morley) It is certainly true that if local authorities are not co-operating on this it does not help in relation to the audit but that co-operation is something which is essential and that is an issue which I will address with the Environment Agency and, if necessary, I will take up directly with the Local Government Association.

  96. The targets that you have set, because we are beginning to touch on those, how are we going to make sure that they are actually implemented within this rather confusing mechanism that we have and which the Committee criticised but you have defended?
  (Mr Morley) There are dates set to actually complete these targets and we would expect the Environment Agency to do that. It is true, as you say, that obviously some of them are easier to achieve than others but any way that we can help in relation to Central Government in terms of making progress on that then we are only too pleased to do that.

  97. What consideration has been given to the inclusion of a target for catchment-level flood management strategies and flood defence planning, as recommended by English Nature?
  (Mr Morley) These are the water level management plans you mean?

  98. Yes.
  (Mr Morley) There is a target for completion on water level management plans. We expect them to be brought forward and there is a date set for that.

  99. From this questioning, I have to be blunt really, you have given the impression that, firstly, you are not entirely clear about the co-operative framework in which the Environment Agency is operating at the moment, which is that it seems to be struggling from the evidence we have, and also that while you are not averse to institutional change, you certainly do not want to lead with it. My difficulty is that the targets that you appear to be setting will be achieved by the goodwill, by the sound of things, of a number of disparate agencies rather than by the collective will of Government. Is that right and is that reassuring?
  (Mr Morley) It is certainly true that there are a number of agencies involved in relation to the delivery of flood and coastal defence. I have made it clear that we have not closed our minds towards institutional reform or to try to make things more streamlined. What you seem to be arguing for is a much more centralised system.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 31 January 2001