Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming. Please would you introduce yourselves?
  (Dr Mance) I am Dr Geoffrey Mance, the Director of Water Management in the Environment Agency.

  (Mr Chapman) I am Jonathan Chapman, National Flood Defence Policy Adviser.
  (Mr Steward) I am Pat Steward. I am the Regional Development Planner, South West.

  2. Dr Mance, did you want to say anything before we begin?
  (Dr Mance) I have one brief comment. The vast majority of people have seen the distress and trauma caused by the recent flooding. Strong, clear policy guidance on planning could prevent another approximately one million people from finding themselves in the same risk situation in the future. Therefore, it is important to us that the planning policy guidance from Government is clear, distinct and robust.

  3. I believe that everybody would join you in that. We shall ask some questions that will help us to evaluate those sorts of responses. Is the run-off induced by recent development or by modern farming a significantly greater contributor to flooding than it used to be?
  (Dr Mance) Over the past 50 or 60 years it is clear that there has been substantial land use change. Urbanisation clearly has introduced large areas of concrete and asphalt, which accelerate the run-off water and make downstream flooding problems worse. Equally, over the same period, since the war, we have seen quite large areas of field under-drainage sponsored by government grants in the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s which has had the same effect. Some studies that took place in the 1970s suggested that the peak flow rates downstream had changed by as much as 15 or 20 per cent. We have also seen a switch from spring to winter cereals, with a consequent change of land use in terms of the way that fields are ploughed, the roughness of the fields and their ability to retain standing water so as to allow that to soak into the ground slowly, rather than running off rapidly. All those matters have caused an increased risk of flooding downstream of the areas of those land use changes. It has been very pronounced.

  4. You are saying that it is not one more than another, but it is a combination of all the factors?
  (Dr Mance) There are few catchments left in England where any one of those factors in isolation is causing a change. It is a combination of all of them and teasing apart the contribution from any one is quite difficult.

  5. How did the amount of rainfall in the past two months compare with previous rainfall?
  (Dr Mance) It has been exceptional. In Yorkshire along the Pennines, down to York Minster and in the lower Ouse catchment, which has featured heavily in the media, there has been two months' rainfall in two weeks. That gives some idea of the severity. That has come in four bursts of rain so that we have had close to three inches of rain in 24 hours on four occasions. York and downstream has experienced not one flood but four floods in two weeks.

Miss McIntosh

  6. I represent the area mostly north of Yorkshire, the worst area to be affected. Do you, as an agency, believe that there should be a moratorium on house building, particularly in an area like the Vale of York, about 30 per cent of which is in the flood plain?
  (Dr Mance) Over the past few years we have been careful not to say that there should be a complete veto on development in flood risk areas. That is because there are some large parts of the country that actually lie at or below sea level, for instance, in East Anglia. To say that there should be no development or redevelopment in those areas is clearly very difficult. However, we strongly believe that at development-plan stage and for each development proposal flood risk needs to be a prominent consideration at the start. We think that when planning authorities are putting together development plans that they should consider where the flood risk areas are, as one of the first issues and that they should ask whether the designation of land areas for development make flood risk worse or reduce it. There is a clear choice to be made. In the past, and indeed under the present guidance, we do not think that they are required to give the matter sufficient prominence in their thinking.


  7. If you are right about the equal part played by the better drainage of agricultural land, presumably that should also be somewhere in the equation?
  (Dr Mance) It is an area of debate that we have raised with the Government. There is an issue about how we examine that and try to get into whole catchment modelling so that we can take account of those shifts. There is an MAFF R and D programme which is carrying out a substantial element of research into establishing that.

  8. I want to ask you to reconsider your previous answer. What kind of breakdown, or what kind of proportions are we talking about? The answer seems to indicate that where there is a difficulty with a particular area, you obviously do not say that there should be no development, but you say you should try to evaluate the effect of all that. If you are not able to tell me what 50 per cent of the water will do when it comes off the agricultural land, you will not come up with very accurate figures, will you?
  (Dr Mance) At the moment with the present land use and catchments, we are able to predict the flood response from rainfall quite accurately. The difficulty is taking account of past and future land use changes and building that into the picture, and particularly anticipating future change. Agriculture responds quite dramatically to shifts in subsidy rates of particular crop types. We believe that when the subsidy rates are changed there should be a form of strategic environmental impact assessment that tries to predict the consequent impact on land use, how it will shift and the likely impact on particular parts of the country.

  9. That is intelligent. However, how do you then feed that information in, because you were saying to Miss McIntosh that when there is a question of development in a particular area that information should be available. If you are right, how do you feed the agricultural element of that in as well?
  (Dr Mance) At the moment we take account of the present usage of the catchment response. Unless you get a shift in subsidy rates that causes a significant shift in land use, the actual change in land use is quite slow. I was referring to an impact over 50 years, a cumulative impact. Separate and parallel with that we have research programmes running to develop the tools to enable us to assess that and turn it into quantitative estimates historically and to enable us to extend them in the future.

  10. When would you expect that model to be available?
  (Dr Mance) Some time in the next three years.

Miss McIntosh

  11. On the urbanisation that you spoke about, the particular problem that has occurred in areas like Rawcliffe, Thoroughbridge and Thirsk is similar to the rest of the country. There is a two-pronged development. From the 1920s onwards new housing has been built in an area that is clearly a flood plain and that has been compounded by urbanisation such as moving-park-and-rides on to what are green belt sites. How do you, as an agency, assess the flood risk from that level of urbanisation where you have to assess the extra sewage and drainage requirements of that urbanisation?
  (Dr Mance) We take account of the make-up of the land upstream of a particular town in looking at how that catchment will respond in terms of the river flooding and the change in flood frequency within that. Also at the planning stage, increasingly robustly over the past ten years, we have put in comments on planning proposals and development plans to try to influence and to ensure that the flood risk element has a great prominence. We have also, jointly with Government, sponsored research and produced a design manual earlier this year. This means things like car parks can be designed in a way so that they are not impervious, and squirt the water off, but so that they retain the water and allow it to soak in and not to generate downstream flooding problems as they currently do. It is a multi-pronged approach of trying to raise the issue and get a better response. Currently, we operate within government guidance on flood risk in relation to planning which is relatively diffuse and weak. Therefore, we are seeking to influence, to persuade and to cajole, in the absence of clear government guidance, which is robust in itself. That gives quite a lot of discretion, therefore, to planning authorities as to how much notice they take.

  12. Does the Environment Agency have a role to play when the development has taken place? For example, does it have a role in seeing that drains are cleared in the way that they should be and that rivers are dredged in the way that they should be. Do you have a role in that respect?
  (Dr Mance) We have a number of roles. We are very conscious that it is easy to become "job's worth" in our view and talk about the "wrong sort of flood". We are conscious of that and we are determined to avoid that. For the main arterial routes we have the clear responsibility for maintaining them and ensuring that they are kept clear, to carry out bank-side vegetation maintenance and so on, so that they remain clear during floods. We have a supervisory role of oversight of other organisations involved in drainage. So we look at the way in which local authorities perform, for instance. Over the past 12 or 18 months we have been talking to local authorities and trying to ensure that they or we inspect their flood defences, and those water courses that are likely to give rise to flooding in built-up areas. We are not so interested in those running across farmland, but we are particularly interested in those running across through or near towns. We have had varying degrees of co-operation. From next summer, under a MAFF initiative of setting targets, the relative performance will be openly published. As we have seen in education and elsewhere, that may attract a debate about the issue of relative performance in maintaining the system.

  13. What advice would you give the Government on streamlining responsibilities between the bodies involved, the Environment Agency, the Internal Drainage Board and the local authorities? We seem to have a particularly arcane system, not just in planning applications, but also in giving flood warnings.
  (Dr Mance) Two years ago the Agriculture Select Committee looked at the whole issue of flood defences and made a range of recommendations, one of which was that there should be a review of the arrangements for flood defences and how they are financed. We welcomed that and supported it. We also welcomed the suggestion that there should be a review of the distinction currently made between the main arterial drainage systems and the minor water courses. Our current view would be that we would not want to see all water courses put under one organisation. We think that there is a case for rationalising responsibilities. We have inherited a lot of trivial water courses in farming areas that do not warrant our attention. Equally, over the past 18 months, jointly with the Local Government Association, and the Association of Drainage Authorities, we have agreed criteria for identifying the critical water courses close to urban areas. There is a case for re-examining whether the responsibilities of those should transfer to a single body like ourselves where the expertise on drainage can be applied.


  14. When talking about draft PPGs, particularly PPG 25, you said that some legislation was weak—I think that was the word you used—and that some of the guidance was weak. At what point do you have an input into that? If you have an input, why is it still weak?
  (Dr Mance) My colleagues will know the details better than I. The existing guidance I believe dates from 1992 and it is a circular as opposed to a PPG. Its standing is at a lower level in the system.

  15. But its standing is weak, Mr Steward?
  (Mr Steward) The current circular effectively promotes mitigation. The developers and local authorities can find ways around our concerns. It does not actually require them to examine closely the precise location.

  16. Are you saying that you have told them clearly what they ought to do and it is set down quite clearly, but because of the status of the circular nobody takes any notice of it? Perhaps it is not quite that and I do not want to put words in your mouth.
  (Dr Mance) If you watched the "Panorama" programme on Sunday evening you would have seen the flats being built in Tonbridge that were actually flooded. That development is going ahead against our advice.

  17. What about PPG 25? Was it drawn up in close consideration and consultation with yourselves?
  (Dr Mance) There was a lot of discussion.

  18. Who wrote the minutes of the discussions?
  (Dr Mance) We repeatedly explained our views of what is required.

  19. What came out of that?
  (Dr Mance) We made clear our concerns about the document that was consulted on and the need for it to be made clear and more robust.

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