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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 84 - 99)




  84. Minister, I do apologise to you, we have had a very interesting session with the Environment Agency and I hope you will forgive us because we were obtaining very useful information. Can I ask you firstly to identify yourself and do you want to make any general remarks?

  (Mr Raynsford) Thank you very much, Chairman. I entirely appreciate this is a very important subject and the fact there has been a slight over-run is no problem at all from our point of view. I am Nick Raynsford, Minister for Planning and Housing, and I am accompanied by Jeff Jacobs, who oversees the planning directorate in the Department and Lester Hicks, an official within that directorate, with particular responsibility for the matters we are discussing this morning. I would be very happy to make a brief introductory statement if that is acceptable to the Committee.

  85. Of course.
  (Mr Raynsford) Madam Chairman, I welcome the opportunity to appear before the Committee today and I should start by extending the Government's sympathy to all those whose homes and businesses have been damaged by the recent floods. I should also like to pay tribute to all those—in local authorities, the emergency services, the armed forces, the health service, voluntary organisations, a wide range of contractors and the general public—who responded so well to the emergency. It is work which in many cases is still going on and will continue for some time. We came to the conclusion that there was a need for a new PPG for planning guidance on flooding following the Easter floods of 1998 and the subsequent reports of the Agriculture Select Committee and the Independent Review Committee chaired by Peter Bye. We held extensive working discussions with officials in MAFF and the Environment Agency and we released, as I think you all know, our consultation draft for PPG 25 in April. We were coming to the end of the evaluation of that consultation earlier this autumn with a view to issuing a revised final version next month when the serious floods occurred, and in the light of those floods we decided to look again at what the final version should say, and obviously we want to take account of any views expressed by this Committee. This will have some implications for timing. I hope it will be clear from what I am going to say that in a number of respects we propose to sharpen and toughen the messages set out in the draft PPG 25, so we may need to consult on the revised draft. All of this means we probably will not be able to finalise PPG 25 until early next year but we do want to get the new guidance in place as soon as possible. Some of the evidence we have seen would suggest a need for further analysis and long-term research and development, and there is always scope for such work, but I do believe PPG 25, revised as we proposed and in the light of any further remarks from this Committee, will be a major clarification and strengthening of the policy on development in flood risk areas, and that we should get ahead without undue further delay. I have talked about how we intend to sharpen up our message and it might be helpful for the Committee if I briefly outlined the key areas. Firstly, we are going to make it absolutely clear there should not be inappropriate development in flood plains. Secondly, we are considering seriously whether to restate the precautionary approach which we set out in the draft as a formal sequential test working from low to high risk areas. Thirdly, we would expect to indicate that building in the functional flood plains used to hold water in times of flood should be avoided except in wholly exceptional circumstances, such as public infrastructure or water-related development such as boathouses. Fourthly, while we think there is still plenty of opportunity to make good use of previously developed land, we will make clear the need for developers to demonstrate they can provide adequate flood defences, avoiding adding to flood risk elsewhere and that they are avoiding the most exposed and risky areas altogether. We shall also be reminding authorities of the opportunities to make best use of land through appropriate higher densities and by sensible flood-resistant designs, and we will stress the importance of designing for flooding for all those involved in the development process. We are already doing quite a lot of work through the Building Regulations on this matter, particularly on matters such as sustainable drainage and stability. We will extend the existing references to preparing development plans which take account of flood defence issues on a catchment-wide basis in full consultation with the Environment Agency and the emergency services, and we will ask authorities to keep their planning policies and local planning guidance up to date as the Environment Agency revises its flood risk assessments at intervals and as better information becomes available on climate change. I hope that has given the Committee a feel for how we are proceeding at the moment.

  86. I think that is very helpful, although I would begin by asking you whether this is what you are actually contemplating doing or whether you intend to do it?
  (Mr Raynsford) This is what we are intending to do but, as I have said, we do still need to take account of the further evidence emerging from the recent floods and obviously we will not complete our conclusions until we have had an opportunity to consider any report that your Committee decides to publish on this matter.

  87. But your indication would be that you do not intend to dilute your views that these changes should be tougher, that you do not intend to be more tolerant of existing circumstances, you are more likely to put on tougher curbs?
  (Mr Raynsford) As I have already indicated, our proposed changes will be significantly toughening-up what was in the draft and I certainly do not see any case for dilution.

  88. Very good. Do local planning authorities really take flood risk seriously enough?
  (Mr Raynsford) We hope that they do, and we believe the experience of the recent floods will have added further incentive for those who perhaps have not given it sufficient attention in the past.

  89. Why is it there has been a three-fold increase in development in these risk areas in the last five years?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think there may be some question about the figures concerned because the Environment Agency—

  90. Let us say 2- and be generous.
  (Mr Raynsford) These refer to applications.

  91. Yes?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have not seen those figures and we have not had an opportunity to analyse them but there is a significant difference between applications and approvals.

  92. Do you monitor this very carefully?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are not satisfied with the existing information. As you will know, we set up the National Landuse Database and other mechanisms in order to keep a closer watch on what information is available.

  93. Do you now think you have got that information?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have not yet got sufficient information and we are doing further work on it, and this is a particular aim where we will want to talk closely to the Environment Agency to identify exactly what the problem is.

  94. What sort of timescale are we talking about for these consultations with the Environment Agency, because it would appear there is some urgency about your need to have this accurate information, would you not think?
  (Mr Raynsford) We agree entirely and I have to say we have seen figures in the Environment Agency's submission to your Committee and we have been seeking clarification on a number of points raised by them. For example, the 21 per cent of cases where they recommended against approval and we are told that permission has been given. We have not got an analysis to tell us where those break down between, for example, cases where an authority may have wilfully ignored the Environment Agency's advice and others where there may be very good reasons for an authority with good local knowledge to take a different view from the Environment Agency. We need to have that analysis before we can produce an informed judgment as to whether there is a serious problem which needs to be addressed.

  95. I accept that, but you are treating this as a matter of urgency?
  (Mr Raynsford) Indeed, very much so.

Miss McIntosh

  96. I think the Government will appreciate the Environment Agency and all the services have done a fantastic job. They have set out the criteria which often planning authorities have simply ignored, do you now accept as a Government that flood plains are there to be flooded and that there should be a presumption against building on flood plains?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think there are two distinct issues which need to be addressed. The first is the functional flood plains which are there and should continue to be there to provide the capacity to deal with large surges of water. As I have said in my earlier statement, we believe there should not be development in such areas except in wholly exceptional circumstances. However, there is a wider issue about the definition of flood plains more generally, and if I can put that in the wider context, the Environment Agency are not suggesting there should be a presumption against development in flood plains more widely. They say very clearly that there has to be a risk-based approach, and we would agree with that, because—and let me give an illustration—13 per cent of the existing developed land, brownfield land, available for development lies in flood plains, and much of that is in highly developed areas such as London, and I have a map which I would be happy to circulate to the Committee to show that. If we were to have a presumption against any development at all in defined flood plains, we simply could not meet our brownfield target and there would be a need for more greenfield development, and in many of those brownfield flood plain areas, such as London, effective preventive measures such as the Thames Barrier have actually provided the safety which is specifically being recommended in our draft PPG 25. That is why we do not accept there is a case for a total presumption against any building in flood plains, but we accept entirely there should be no building except in very exceptional circumstances in the functional flood plains which are there to absorb heavy inundations.

  97. You also said in your statement there should be a presumption against inappropriate development?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  98. How are you going to define what is "inappropriate development"? If, for example, you can show, to take Rawcliffe in the Vale of York, on the outskirts of York, houses and development like a park-and-ride scheme have led to flooding which was not predicted, are you going to ask the planning authority to go back and make good where those flood defences were breached?
  (Mr Raynsford) I cannot give an instant comment on the particular site you have mentioned because obviously I would need to look at the circumstances, but on the general principle we certainly do not believe, and I hope I have made that clear in my earlier statement, there should be development in sites where there is a serious risk of flooding and those sites cannot be adequately protected. But, as I said a moment ago, where there are appropriate protective arrangements in place—and I used Central London and the Thames Barrier as an example—it would not be sensible to have a presumption against building because the area happens to be defined as a flood plain.

  99. Looking at the Environment Agency map, at least 30 per cent of the Vale of York is a flood plain, you can argue about whether it is a protective flood plain or not. Can the Government impose some kind of mechanism, such as prohibitive mortgages or prohibitive insurance, where developers and planning authorities go against PPG 25 once it has been tightened and formally adopted?
  (Mr Raynsford) Clearly, the purpose of issuing the new PPG 25 will be to ensure that local authorities are taking account of all the issues which should be considered before reaching decisions, and we will obviously, as with other planning guidance, monitor closely its implementation. I would say that the insurance industry and the mortgage lenders are certainly looking very closely themselves at these issues because they too have had very serious consequences from the recent floods and I am sure they will reach their own conclusions.

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