Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. That is what this Committee argued for.
  (Mr Morley) They did, but on balance I think that if you are delivering flood defence there is a strong argument for local involvement through local authorities. I do have to be honest and say that in relation to the problems that the Environment Agency have been having in co-operation, they have not particularly brought them to my attention so, therefore, I am assuming they are overcoming those, but I will certainly take steps to check that. It is fair to say, however, that there have been other problems which have been brought to my attention and they are primarily in relation to funding from the levy raised from local authorities.

  101. They raised that problem too.
  (Mr Morley) That has been brought to my attention, Chairman, there is no two ways about that, and I have intervened in a number of areas to remind local authorities of their responsibilities in relation to their role in flood and coastal defence and the fact that there is provision through their Standard Spending Assessment which has been above inflation in the last few years to actually provide resources for this. I would not want to pretend that there are not problems with that. That is a consideration that we will have to take into account but, of course, with the review which is taking place on the funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defence, it is an opportunity to think about those approaches.

Dr Turner

  102. In paragraph 14 of the memorandum you describe MAFF's Project Appraisal Guidance. Could I just ask the Minister where does that fit within MAFF and within the Environment Agency? Is that something you share with them, those procedures, or is that an internal MAFF approach?
  (Mr Morley) On the Project Appraisal Guidance?

  103. Yes.
  (Mr Morley) It is something which the Department lays down in terms of the kinds of standards that we would expect the Environment Agency to follow in relation to evaluating the particular projects which they are putting forward. In the end it is partly a process which is based on the Environment Agency in terms of assessments of its own needs. It is a process which involves the Environment Agency in relation to the design of the actual projects. There is an evaluation, of course, which we apply in relation to the environmental considerations, the cost benefit analysis, and also the social considerations of it as well.

  104. So where does the points system, which I understand from the Environment Agency earlier today does go right across the range from flood to coastal—
  (Mr Morley) Yes, it does.

  105. That seemed to me to cover a number of things—economic assessment, risk, environmental considerations—
  (Mr Morley) That is correct. The points system which was introduced, I think, in 1997, is a way of trying to have some priority within schemes because of course in any one year you are always going to get more submissions and schemes than you can actually fund, so therefore it is quite logical that you have a scheme which is a proper, impartial way of evaluating need which takes into account all those points which you have raised and gives a point score, and of course those schemes with the highest points are the ones which are brought forward. You can adjust those points in relation to various factors. We have just recently adjusted the points for urban river system defences because of the recent floods and because we have to take into account that we may be seeing more of this kind of weather, so the score for urban river systems has been increased, so therefore that is part of the process of changing priorities and bringing it forward. So you can adjust the scoring system to take into account the kind of priorities that you want. Also in relation to additional funding, the overall score is coming down, because we have more funding available it means the score is being lowered and that means we can embrace more schemes as well.

  106. Are you sure you are not reacting after the horse has bolted on the urban river system? If you are trying to see a balance between coastal and river flooding, is it that we have not had the coastal problems yet and you will change it again next year if there is flooding in my constituency?
  (Mr Morley) We have to take into account the situation as we find it but there are priorities for coasts. We are well aware of the situation of coasts. In relation to the point that Mr Jack was making, the actual impact of climate change on sea level is much better understood than the impact on rainfall, so in that respect we are already building in projections on rising sea level, and that is being done now in relation to future coastal defences. Again we have priority schemes and we know where they are to be applied. As you will also know, we are thinking of a more sustainable approach to coastal defences, which may mean re-aligning existing defences.

  107. Could I ask if you would be surprised to hear that the Environment Agency told us a short time ago that they believed—I think the present system has around a 20 point hurdle—
  (Mr Morley) It has just been reduced from 22 to 20, yes.

  108.—the appropriate level would be single figures? I wondered what your reaction to that would be?
  (Mr Morley) If I was the Environment Agency I would probably say the same thing, Chairman, basically, because it does mean they would get more schemes and more funding. Ideally that would be great although I am not quite sure when the Environment Agency said to the Committee they would like to see a single figure score, whether they have done a technical evaluation and whether they could actually deliver the number of schemes within that score, because you would have to have the available engineers, the available plant, the available company; there is a physical limit to the number of schemes you can design and build in any one year, depending on the scale and the size and the technical issues. I am not at all sure whether the Environment Agency has done that kind of evaluation.

  109. A serious concern for the public will be that it may be that we do have to put more money into coastal defences and flood defences and, as you have just said Minister, you need to build up to that capability, you are not going to be able to do it straight away, and they will be worried you will be wanting to do it after the damage is done. It does seem that this year in terms of the floods and from what has been said to us that we have got away, very narrowly, with some very major problems.
  (Mr Morley) Yes, there were some floods—

  110. Are you yourself convinced that the Government is gearing up sufficiently? It does show gearing up in terms of total expenditure. Are you satisfied?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, I am largely satisfied. I say "largely" because, of course, there is always more you can do and there is always more money you can spend, but we have to be pragmatic, and I have to accept I live in the real world and there is a certain financial allocation which we have within the Department for flood and coastal defence expenditure. It is an increasing expenditure, it is going up year on year, and we have additional money, but it still means that you have to have priorities, and in that sense a priority scoring system is the fairest way in my opinion of deciding which schemes should be brought forward. As I was saying to you, you can change that scoring, you can change the priorities, you can build it into the score in terms of developing priorities in different years and different circumstances. So I do think it is the right approach. Ultimately the score will continue to come down. As the spend increases, which you have seen in relation to the memorandum, it will enable the score to come down. In relation to the point you have made about preparing and having sufficient engineering capacity, you cannot suddenly have a huge jump in an area like that, it is more sensible to have a gradual increase, and then of course you will have the facilities which are being made available to do that, to bid for it, to tender for it. We are also looking at some other schemes as well, such as some very big public/private partnership schemes providing coastal defence schemes in partnership with contractors who are doing it over a very long basis; major investment. So we are looking at a number of ways of levering more money into flood and coastal defences and also making sure the capacity is there to do it.

Mr Öpik

  111. The NFU compiled a dossier of weather chaos, which I am sure you have seen, and in fairness the Government has responded as far as I can see by relaxing some of the regulations, for example the latest sowing dates for Arable Area Payments and also more flexibility in allowing flooded areas to be used in set-aside, which is great. Are there any other schemes or ideas which the Government has had to assist farmers?
  (Mr Morley) Not as at this moment. Those are schemes where we have some national discretion and we have used that national discretion to give immediate support to farmers in flooded areas. As you say, we have offered them the opportunity of 100 per cent set-aside for fields under water, we have also offered flexibility on the green cover rule on set-aside when of course they cannot comply, and we are also in consultation with the NFU and we will be seeking variations from various rules in relation to schemes such as planting dates, for example, which we may have to do if farmers cannot get on their land until the spring, which is a possibility given how water-logged the land is. So we are doing that now. The NFU has submitted a dossier of damage to my Rt Hon friend, Nick Brown, and he has given some thought to that, but in all honesty we do not have a financial facility within the Department for giving major compensation for flood damage of this kind, we just do not have those income streams. What we can do, where we have discretion, is to use that as quickly and swiftly as we can to try and help out.

  112. One suggestion given by the NFU, potentially quite viable in flood plains, would be to use their land as set-aside for water, actually store water and then release it more gradually. Is that something in principle you would be willing to consider?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, in principle, I would be more than willing to consider that. It may well be the case that in relation to our agri-environment budget, which is also a considerable rise in spend, it might be possible to look at ways of getting environmental gain and also using agricultural land as winter flood storage areas and water management areas. It is one of the advantages of having a whole catchment study because a whole catchment study of course will identify that kind of approach. As a very rough rule of thumb, where land is subject to regular flooding as part of the natural consequences of the area, there is not financial support available because that is the position which has been long-established, but where land could be taken for flooding or water management, then there is a case for some form of compensation or some form of management agreement. So we are very willing to consider that in relation to water management.

  113. Would your Department then be willing to consider more detailed proposals and strategies which the NFU might put together about how they see that working and giving examples?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, we would, and indeed it is not just the NFU who are interested, but also the wildlife trusts and the RSPB. We are very willing to look at submissions to us. As you will appreciate, we have to apply similar criteria of technical evaluation, cost benefit analysis and environmental impact to see whether such schemes would have an effect. It was brought home to me when I was going around flood hit areas in this recent situation when I was in Leeds City Centre, which came very close to flooding, and I was told that the effect of the washlands outside the City and up river actually lowered the water level by a metre and a half. That was the effect of the washlands. So you can have quite an effect by using washlands in relation to both water management and also flood defence. I certainly would be more than happy to consider that kind of approach.

  114. That is a great idea for the future by the sound of it. Moving on, the National Appraisal of Assets at Risk from Flooding and Coastal Erosion, probably the worst—
  (Mr Morley) Not a snappy title.

  115. Not yet, no, but I am sure they are working on it. The statistic is snappy because they reckon that 61 per cent of England's Grade 1 agricultural land is located in areas at risk of flooding or coastal erosion. Is there a case for extra protection and would the Government be willing to formulate a strategy if it feels that land needs particular attention?
  (Mr Morley) We have not at the moment got a particular strategy for Grade 1 agricultural land. You are right to say that a lot of it is in flood risk areas because a lot of Grade 1 land is on peat bogs and it has been reclaimed land. It is very productive land although it has problems with soil erosion, such as the Cambridgeshire Fens where there are particular problems with it in relation to the pressure on the soils. We are approaching that with such things as our soil codes in relation to protecting the quality of soil. At the moment the priority has to be lives and property and national infrastructure and while agriculture is certainly a criterion, it is a lower criterion than those others.

  116. I have got three last questions. One is, what research have MAFF done to see if there is a connection between intensive farming practice and flooding, for example, perhaps the removal of peat tufts from hills and that kind of thing?
  (Mr Morley) We have a number of R&D projects in relation to the effect of such things as intensive grazing on soils and run-off. We also have a number of research projects in relation to soil management, the impact of a switch to autumn cereals, for example, which we have both funded in the past and are currently funding at the present time.

  117. Any practical lessons that you are planning to put into practice?
  (Mr Morley) Where you can see some of the biggest impact is where some grassed downland has been ploughed up and turned into cereals. You can get quite a lot of run-off, not just run-off, Chairman, you can get mud slides in certain circumstances in relation to that. That is an issue of a cropping regime and a management regime. One of the changes that I think will help this is that we are bringing forward quite a long delayed Environmental Impact Assessment which will be applied to natural and semi-natural grassland. Before this will be ploughed up in future it will have to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment and such issues as water run-off and the effect of ploughing up grassland and slopes will obviously be part of that EIA. That is one way of tackling that, although I do accept it is something that should have been brought forward some years ago.

  118. Two very brief questions. One is would you be willing to consider a strategy whereby if local farmers, or groups of farmers, can think of specific projects which could help alleviate ploughing problems, there could be a mechanism into the Department, perhaps in partnership with the Environment Agency, to evaluate those? In other words, to encourage those who really know the local areas to come forward with useful propositions.
  (Mr Morley) We very much value local knowledge and local views. Yes, indeed, if there is a consortium of local landowners who would want to join forces with the Environment Agency to bring forward a scheme, we would be only too pleased to consider that. It would, of course, have to go through exactly the same evaluation as any other scheme, which is the technical, environmental and cost benefit, but subject to the normal evaluation we would be only too happy to consider that approach.

  119. Finally, a question you may not be able to answer. What assumptions are you making for sea level rise in the plans that you were discussing before? Do you happen to know how much you are planning for the sea level rise?
  (Mr Morley) I have not got the exact figures to hand but I can let you have those. Basically there are two figures on the East Coast in particular. The figures have just suddenly come to me. It is between four to six millimetres a year, that is the assumption that is being built into flood defences. On the East Coast we also have to build in an assumption of the fact that the country is sinking. It is sinking in the East and rising in the West.

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