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


Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000

DR GEOFFREY MANCE, MR JONATHAN CHAPMAN AND MR PATRICK STEWARD

  20. You had a lot of talks and you told them what you wanted. Was that reflected in PPG 25?
  (Dr Mance) The fact that it became a PPG as opposed to a circular reflected some recognition of what we were saying. That is a welcome shift. It gives it more standing. We believe that the document has not gone far enough. We say that there should be a sequential approach, which is that you start with no flood risk; if you cannot achieve that because you are in such a low-lying area you have no choice but to go to an area with some flood risk, so then you go to a low-flood risk area, then a medium-flood risk area and only at the end to a high-flood risk area. As the flood risk increases it is not just a matter of allowing land development, as there is now published guidance from the Building Research Establishment on how to flood-proof properties so that they are easier to re-occupy and the initial impact of a flood on them is much less dramatic. We believe that in situations where development in flood risk areas is unavoidable, the onus should be on the developers to show that the development has been designed and constructed in a way that reduces the risk and the disruption caused by flooding. We find it very distressing when we see bungalows being built behind four-metre high flood defences. If the embankment is over-topped by an extreme event—we have seen very extreme events in the past three weeks in Yorkshire—and water comes over the top, those people will have nowhere to go that is safe. The roof will still be below the flood level. That seems absolutely absurd in this day and age.

Miss McIntosh

  21. Could there be some way of refusing access to a mortgage or insurance if the risk of building on that flood risk was deemed by you or PPG 25 to be too high?
  (Dr Mance) That is clearly an issue for the insurance industry and the mortgage industry to consider. We believe that it is important, and increasingly so, that clear information about the flood risk is publicly available and is actually picked up in a conveyance search and so on. In that case people can make decisions with their eyes open and they would have all the information available to them.

Mr O'Brien

  22. What action has the agency taken when it discusses a planning application with the local planning authority and there is no mitigation to prevent flooding and the agency knows that there is a significant danger? What action do you take?
  (Dr Mance) As I commented earlier, increasingly robustly we have made the point to a planning authority that it is a flood risk area and that development in that location is inappropriate. We have increasingly maintained that objection and even when it is made clear sometimes they wish to continue and give approval.

  23. How do you reflect that?
  (Dr Mance) We would put that formally into the planning system. I think we are required within 14 days to make a response on each application to the planning authority.

  24. It stops at that level, does it? Do you take the matter higher up?
  (Dr Mance) On large developments we would push harder and talk to planning officers. We would raise the matter with the relevant director of the local authority to try to ensure that the issue was fully in focus and understood.

  25. But the agency has a responsibility direct to the Minister? Do these matters never go to the Minister?
  (Dr Mance) We have a right to request a "call-in", but the standing of that right to request a call-in is no different from you or I, as members of the public, doing it.

  26. Presumably if the agency comments, it has more weight than someone else doing it. How many have you called in recently?
  (Dr Mance) Legally, our advice that the issue should be called in has the same standing as though it were given by a member of the public.

  Mr O'Brien: But the agency obviously has all the research, all the information, so if it submits a case to the Secretary of State, it would be much more important than an ordinary individual doing so. How many have been called in recently?

  Mr Blunt: How many times have you requested a call-in and how many times has it happened?

Chairman

  27. While we are on this matter, the new PPG 25 says that if a local authority wants to approve a planning application against your advice then they have to reconsult you.
  (Dr Mance) Yes. That is a welcome advance.

  28. Is that strong enough? What concerns Members is how often you have used the power. Supposing I was going to look at a delightful estate and somehow the developer managed to avoid telling me that it was in the middle of a flood plain, how would I have access to that information?
  (Dr Mance) We would hope that your solicitor would pick it up in conveyancing.

  29. If we rely on solicitors we are in trouble.
  (Dr Mance) From the first week in December you would be able to go onto the Internet and see the flood risk maps on-line and you would be able to call up by postcode the area you were looking at to see whether it has a flood risk or not.

  30. Now tell us the answers to the questions that you have been asked.
  (Dr Mance) I am not sure that we have any statistics with us. Perhaps I can put in a supplementary memorandum on that.

  31. It is something that you have done, is it?
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  Mr Blunt: You would be able to tell us how many you have asked to be called in and how many have actually been called in.

  Chairman: Have you a vague idea? Can you make an informed guess?

Mr Blunt

  32. Every time you ask for a call-in do you get one, or every time you ask for a call-in does it hardly ever happen?
  (Mr Steward) Perhaps I may turn away from planning applications to development plans. That is where we have some call-in powers, if you want to call them that. We want to ensure that the focus is at the development plan stage. Very early in the planning process you can have clarity about the flooding issues. If we are concerned about the plan allocation made by a local authority, through that process we can maintain an objection to that and ensure that it is given due consideration by a planning inspectorate, or at the Secretary of State level, if the local planning authority wishes to continue with that allocation. That is the first and top priority as far as we are concerned—the development plan process. In relation to planning applications, we maintain objections—we maintain a fair number—but when we understand that a local authority actually wants to grant planning permission, often it is the case that we will try to get the best out of that situation. So we go back and try to get mitigation.

  33. It sounds like Ministers negotiating with the EU.
  (Dr Mance) That is a reasonable analogy. We shall come back to you in regard to the statistics.

  Chairman: That would help.

Mr O'Brien

  34. Getting away from the flood plains, in urban areas where we have drains for the general drainage of an area, and a development takes place that interferes with that drainage, who is responsible? Is the Environment Agency responsible for the drainage or the local authority?
  (Dr Mance) If it interferes with the water course and the ability of the water course to drain, then it requires a land drainage consent from ourselves. We would, therefore, seek to prevent interference with the drainage system. Our larger concern is not necessarily with the surface drainage through streams but through the sewerage system. Clearly, we have expressed our concern as to whether investment in the infrastructure is adequate. As there is in-fill development in areas, we are concerned whether the sewers are checked to see whether they can carry the run-off from the site adequately, or will we get increased frequencies of release during storms from those sewers because they have not been upgraded? That is quite a significant issue for us, both in flood terms and in terms of pollution.

Mr Olner

  35. I want to pursue that point. What sort of relationship do you have with the regional water authorities?
  (Dr Mance) A mixed one. We have quite a good dialogue with them about problems and issues and in places where we co-operate, say, on conservation and pollution or whatever, but at other times it is inevitable that we have a robust and confrontational interface, where they are clearly not doing adequately in terms of pollution control.

  36. The water authorities know their areas. They are all based on river basins.
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  37. Surely, they have a wealth of knowledge about flooding and the general water run-off in the whole of the river basin area. Are you saying that they are not managing that well enough?
  (Dr Mance) Specifically in urban areas, where surface run-off and drainage from a site goes to a sewer and mixes in with foul sewage, there is clearly a temptation where there is in-fill housing to connect more and more houses or commercial developments to the same facilities and not necessarily upgrading the capacity of that sewer system to cater for that increased demand. In those situations you get problems with the pipes not being able to convey all the water and during storms there are extra releases from those systems into the local streams which act as storm overflows which gives us pollution problems.

  38. What advice are you giving water authorities on this and other matters, given the fact that our weather patterns do seem to have changed? We have had a spate of two-months rain in a couple of weeks. That is a developing trend, so what sort of talks are you having with the authorities to ensure that that is taken fully into account?
  (Dr Mance) Through the exercise of the periodic review of water prices, we have made it clear that we effectively have created a benchmark for existing problems. We have made it clear that we are robust in taking action against any new problems that emerge through a failure to maintain infrastructure. That relates to pipework below ground. We have also raised this with the Environmental Audit Select Committee in their inquiry into the recent price review, and we are discussing it with OFWAT, as the price and economic regulator, to try to ensure that this issue is properly addressed and resourced. The DETR has also been engaged in those discussions.

  39. As an agency, do you support the fact that global warming is causing this freak weather?
  (Dr Mance) I am not sure whether we can state categorically that what we have seen is as a result of global warming.


 
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