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


Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000

DR GEOFFREY MANCE, MR JONATHAN CHAPMAN AND MR PATRICK STEWARD

  40. The insurance industry is categorically saying that.
  (Dr Mance) What we can say is that what we have seen over the past five or six years is extremes of weather which match the predictions of global warming quite well.

Chairman

  41. It is not global warming, but it just sounds like global warming and looks like global warming and reacts like global warming but you are not sure that it is.
  (Dr Mance) The record rainfall in any one place was in 1911. The weather that we experience within the climate is very erratic and variable. Saying that in one or two short periods of time that the system has shifted completely is difficult to say absolutely. All the signals are that it is. The underlying temperature profile and so on shows that there is a shift happening, but how rapidly and how far and how dramatically it will go, is very difficult to say. That is a very important as to how we design flood defence systems. We are facing the prospect of designing for large uncertainties. Given that, our constraints at the moment are very tight, we have a cost benefit assessment that does not allow us to deal with uncertainties in a sensible way.

Mr Olner

  42. Mr Steward said that, like local authorities, you have to react to planning applications. That is basically when the matter is finished. Given what you have just said, what input should be made now and what should the Government do for structure plans and local plans that have already been approved, but have not taken into account the change and variation in the global weather?
  (Mr Chapman) The agency has proposed that we need to look at the sites that have been proposed through the structure plans and development plans and re-examine the flood risk to them. Potentially there is a problem in store.

  43. So the Government should say to local authorities, "Forget whatever structure plans you have put forward in the past and that have been approved; you ought to start again from scratch"?
  (Mr Chapman) No, I am not suggesting that they forget what is there, but it would be sensible to review what is there, together with the developer, the planning authority and the agency and to look at the existing flood risks and allocation so that they are clear as to what land will come out of the process which otherwise would inevitably come forward for planning permission in a few years' time.

  44. What part does sustainable drainage play in these plans? Will you insist, particularly in urban areas, that there is sustainable drainage?
  (Dr Mance) We have been actively encouraging the use of sustainable drainage systems.

  45. Perhaps encouraging developers to do something is one matter, but making them do it is another.
  (Dr Mance) We would like the planning guidance and building regulations to put a bias clearly in favour of their general adoption, rather than relying purely on persuasion on each site by ourselves. We want the system to give very clear signals in favour of a more sustainable approach.

Mr Bennett

  46. Can you briefly describe what sustainable drainage is?
  (Dr Mance) We have tried to find a better phrase than "sustainable drainage systems". It is a whole range of options from very simple flood storage basins that retain floods for a while and then release the water slowly over a period of time, through to green areas in towns where the water may go up and down during a storm and where it can be stored and encouraged to soak away over a long period of time, rather than releasing it downstream subsequently, through to pervious car parks and pavements designed to allow the water through, to retain it and allow it to soak away gradually over a period of time. Basically, it is to encourage the water to stay higher in the catchment in the town for longer in a way that is not damaging.

Mr Brake

  47. I want to follow up on a couple of things that Dr Mance has said and one thing that Mr Chapman has said. Dr Mance, you said fairly early on that one million people could be at risk if there is not a tough PPG in place. Can you supply the Committee with a map of exactly where you reckon those people are? Secondly, you have said that you are luke warm on climate change, or you do not want to say that it is climate change. Yet in your own submission you have talked about the need to "`future proof' development by using future climates as a basis for design now", which sounds like planning for climate change to me. You must have done some work on that. Have you made any estimates on how much needs to be spent on flood defences in terms of investment over future years to allow for future climate changes? How much has the Government actually brought forward?
  (Dr Mance) Picking up those points in sequence, on the number of houses identified, we have looked at the pattern over the past five years, bringing together a number of databases run by the insurance industry and our own flood risk maps. That has shown that around 9 or 10 per cent of the planning applications are in flood risk areas. If you apply that to the prospective growth of new housing—let us talk of around 4 million properties—you get a figure of just under 400,000 properties. We do not have a view on where those will be, as they are an extrapolation from those figures under the present planning guidance. Therefore we could not give you a map. On climate change, I was trying to convey that we cannot say with confidence that the extreme events that we have seen over the past three, four or five years are actually due to climate change. They are completely consistent with predictions and we accept that climate change is happening. In the coastal area we have been making allowances for the last 10 or 15 years for sea level rise. There are two reasons for that. One is that geologically there is tilt in the South East as the land bounces back from the ice age, but more significantly, as warming takes place the sea expands and that gives rise to an increase in sea levels. That increase is of the order of 6 to 10 millimetres a year. That takes us to almost a metre over 100 years in the increase in sea level. That makes no allowance for the predicted increase in storminess and, therefore, the severity of wave attack experienced or the increased height of waves.

  Chairman: Before you frighten us totally, do you have answers to the other two points?

Mr Brake

  48. How much money has the Government put forward in terms of investment and what estimate have you made of the amount of money needed to be invested to cope with the bigger waves to which you have just referred?
  (Dr Mance) We have not yet made an estimate for the whole country. An assessment for the Thames Estuary alone suggests that over the next 40 years we shall need to invest £4 billion to maintain the current defences. That is just for the Thames Estuary. We have carried out rapid estimates as a result of the current flooding—I say current, because it is still on-going in South Yorkshire and Sussex—and we probably need to spend of the order of another £200 million to deal with the obvious problems that we have seen over the past few weeks on top of current investment. Through the spending review, the Government have made another £30 million available over the second two years of the spending review period, and have recently announced an extra £51 million over the next three years. At the time that the £51 million was announced we said that it was a welcome first step. We live in hope of a second step.

  49. Mr Chapman, you talked about the need to re-examine structure plans. I want to push you further on that. Might there be a need to take retrospective action on existing development? We have referred to residential property and I want to talk about industrial property. You may be aware that there was a fire at Sandhurst industrial park. That was followed by a severe flood and I understand from talking to Stephen Martin, an experienced environmentalist, that there is now a cocktail of 100 tonnes of paint stripper, toluene, pesticide residue, 21 kilograms of cyanide that is now swilling around in the waters there and no one has been able to go in because of the floods to find out what is happening. Do you think that there is a need for greater powers to go back and look at that kind of a site?
  (Dr Mance) I am well aware of that site and a number of others. We believe that through the integrated pollution inspection control directive that there is scope for us to look at the siting of some existing installations and the acceptability of their safety in relation to flood risk. Had the fire at Sandhurst happened two days later, the fire brigade would not have been able to get to the site to put it out as it was surrounded by water. It is fortuitous that it happened before the flood arrived. Clearly, that causes us concern and we are exploring that with the Health and Safety Executive among others.

Mr Donohoe

  50. You say that the public go into new houses with their eyes open in relation to flooding. I would say the exact opposite. When a developer puts in an advert, why do you not put one alongside warning people that there is a potential for flooding? What is there to stop you doing that?
  (Dr Mance) That is an interesting suggestion. I guess there is nothing to stop us doing that beyond the issue of having resources available to do so repeatedly across the country.

Chairman

  51. You could put separate maps in the local plan showing the estimated extent of different severities of flooding?
  (Dr Mance) We hope that the development plans of the future will include flood risks plans. We have also targeted 800,000 properties in the high risk flooding areas with direct mail shots to try to raise awareness. We are close to agreement with the Law Society on the inclusion of flood risk in conveyancing information. One could ask when does an individual take responsibility for his or her decisions and require information. At which point is a regulatory operational body such as ourselves expected to intervene on their behalf?

Mr Donohoe

  52. How many houses are you aware of that now do not have the potential to be insured because of the flooding that they have suffered?
  (Dr Mance) There has been a significant number of reports, during the recent events, of people finding that their insurance will be valid for the present flood, but that they will find it very difficult to renew that insurance. That is an issue that we have highlighted to the Government for discussion with the insurance industry. It is certainly something that the Deputy Prime Minister has made clear that he is well alive to.

  53. I heard you say earlier that some elements of new developments create a rapidity of run-off. That has a knock-on effect downstream where there have been developments for years. What statutory responsibilities do you have in that respect to stop that development or to bring to everyone's attention the potential damage that will be created by it?
  (Mr Chapman) Obviously, the agency seeks to identify such issues and brings them into the democratic process of the town and country planning system.

  54. Do you bring such things to the attention of the poor sods further down the road?
  (Dr Mance) You highlight the reason why we are concerned about the draft PPG. Clearly it is not robustly in favour of more sustainable drainage systems that prevent those things arising. We believe that it should be. There is a good practice design manual available and there is a good practice examples manual available. Within 10 miles of you somewhere in this country now there is one operating and it has been there for some time. The service station on the M40 at Oxford was designed so that the run-off from the site was no different from when it was a greenfield site. We do not believe that now there is any excuse for maintaining the rather tired, traditional approach to drainage design. We have no powers to insist upon it and that is why we want to see it in the planning system and in the building regulations.

Chairman

  55. If local plans included areas at risk from flooding on their proposals maps, would that give a false impression or would it be a move forward?
  (Dr Mance) I think it would be a move forward. Again, it is a way of drawing attention to everyone that the risk is there and the plan should adequately address the risk.

  56. Who ought to be responsible for preparing the maps?
  (Dr Mance) In terms of wise use of public resources, I believe it would be sensible for us to develop, maintain and improve those maps. I believe that if a developer takes exception to them and believes that they are wrong, the developer should be required to pay to prove that they are wrong and show how they should be improved. At the moment things are the other way around. We have defended the validity of the maps, rather than having better information paid for by the developers.

Mr Blunt

  57. On the issue of mapping, on the southern boundary of my constituency there is a plan to build several thousand houses on a greenfield site, which everybody who lives there knows about 30 years ago was under water. It does not appear on your plans as being part of a flood plain because it does not flood from rivers, but it floods from storm water that has accumulated there before it drains away. Your maps do not necessarily accurately represent the flood risk.
  (Dr Mance) If it is a greenfield site, and there are no properties that currently experience flooding, we will not necessarily pick that up and show it on the maps.

  58. Under Section 105 of the 1991 Act you have a responsibility to identify flooding from rivers and tidal flood plains, and not necessarily from water run-off. Is that right?
  (Dr Mance) Technically, that is right. In practice we try to make use of the information that we have accumulated, and every time there is a flood we accumulate more information and translate that through to give the most comprehensive picture that we can. We would never claim that the information that we currently have is 100 per cent perfect. I doubt it will ever be so. We deal with the occasional extreme event that causes problems. Predicting extremes is always difficult and they do not necessarily happen evenly over the country over a given period of time. That is why we believe that the policy planning guidance should put an onus at development plan stage and then on the developers to assess the flood risk to show whether it is there or not and how they will take account of it to prove that it is safe to develop that area. That is why the system ought to go through this sequential route, with the onus on the developer. At the moment the onus is on the public sector to pay out of public funds to prove that it is not possible to develop an area, rather than on the developer who will make a profit.

Chairman

  59. You are saying that it should be part of a normal search?
  (Dr Mance) Yes, and part of the developer's proposal.


 
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