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


Examination of witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000

MR NICK RAYNSFORD, MR JEFF JACOBS AND MR LESTER HICKS

Mr Olner

  100. Could I ask, Minister, whether following the recent occurrences with flooding you have given any further instructions to the Planning Inspectorate?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have not given further advice to the Planning Inspectorate but, of course, as you will know we have issued PPG 3 which does specifically, among the many other issues it covers, refer to taking account of flood risk, and guidance has been issued to the Planning Inspectorate on the appropriate implications of PPG 3.

  101. Could I ask whether you have also had any discussions with the water authorities which are obviously based on river basins where the whole of the river catchment is important? Do you have discussions with those?
  (Mr Raynsford) I have focused primarily on planning responsibilities but I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken a broad view of the concerns. He has already convened a meeting of the Central/Local Partnership and is intending to hold a further meeting specifically bringing together all those bodies involved to consider the issues in early December. Certainly the water companies would be among those to be involved in the discussions, yes.

  102. Given that the local plans and the structure plans have been around for a considerable time, do you think there is an opportunity now with this new focus on flooding that they should be very closely re-examined and quickly as well?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes, indeed. As you will know, when we issued PPG 3 we did advise all local authorities to reconsider their plans, and I think it is a reasonable assumption that when we come to issuing PPG 25 we will be expecting authorities to look at their existing plans in the light of the new guidance. Clearly I cannot anticipate what we do say.

  103. Dr Mance, when he was giving evidence earlier from the Environment Agency, mentioned the on-going emergency works which still need to be done. Is the Government going to ensure that that money is available? £12 million was talked about at one stage, I think.
  (Mr Raynsford) This is a slightly difficult one for me because the majority of that would fall to my colleagues in MAFF, but I do know from discussions we have had with MAFF that they are very much apprised of the current needs and are keen to ensure that work proceeds as fast as possible to provide the necessary defences.

Chairman

  104. It should not always be MAFF, though, should it? It must be a joint responsibility. Have you no input into that?
  (Mr Raynsford) We do, and we do talk to them, but they recognise that the planning regulations are specifically our responsibility, and flood and coastal defence issues are predominantly theirs.

  105. But we have joined-up government, do we not?
  (Mr Raynsford) We try to.

Mr Donohoe

  106. Do you have a joined-up department? A couple of years ago you made an announcement that there would be a requirement for new build in something of the order of 3 to 4 million and that would be mainly in the South East of England. How does that square with the problem that most of those houses, or a fairly high proportion of those houses, will have to be built on flood plains?
  (Mr Raynsford) If I can correct that, we have actually abandoned the predict-and-provide approach, which was the approach of the previous Government, we have adopted a different and more flexible approach for ensuring housing needs are met, and we have put a clear emphasis on building on brownfield sites. That was the issue that I highlighted a moment ago. To give a further illustration, we know that 36 per cent of the brownfield sites available in London—the area which to date has done the most building on brownfield land, for obvious reasons—is in the defined flood plain. In fact if I can ask officials to pass around the map, you will see it demonstrates the flood plain areas in Central London, the Thames Gateway and Hull, which I have put in because clearly it is of immediate concern to my boss, the Deputy Prime Minister. (Map circulated) That demonstrates the extent of the flood plain and the extent of brownfield development sites within those areas. In the case of London, the Thames Gateway and Hull, there are proper preventive measures in place, and that is where we have to be careful to ensure that we do not put a ban on development on such sites because that would work entirely against our general planning policy to make better use of brownfield sites and to encourage the urban renaissance.

  107. But some of those proposed developments then will create problems downstream, will they not? The rapidity of run-off increases the problems further down.
  (Mr Raynsford) I accept your point that in certain cases new development, if there are inappropriate arrangements for drainage, could have that effect, but I do not think that would be a problem in London where the existing drainage arrangements are very carefully planned to cope with these kind of pressures.

  108. It is not that I do not want you to think but I want you to say that there will be assurances that that will not happen at all and there will be something in circulars which will enforce that as being a part of the calculation.
  (Mr Raynsford) What we are trying to do is to ensure that development is focused in areas where it will be safe. Therefore we wish to discourage development in areas where there is a flood risk and we are saying quite openly that in the functional flood plains, which are there to absorb surges of water, there should be no development except in very, very exceptional circumstances. In other areas where there is the capacity to provide appropriate protection, that may well on a risk assessment be considered an appropriate solution. We do say, incidentally, that the developer should pay for that protection and that is a further additional rather important point. But to rule out any development in such areas would be in our view unwise and it would certainly have a very adverse impact on our wider greenfield/brownfield development proportions.

Chairman

  109. You might be encouraged by the fact that most of your constituency appears to be in the tidal flood plain.
  (Mr Raynsford) I am well aware of that, as you may imagine. We did not produce a map of Crewe—

  110. It is quite all right. My late mother's property is in your constituency!
  (Mr Raynsford) It is very well protected, I am pleased to say.

Mr Donohoe

  111. I asked the Environment Agency this question and they said they did not have the powers to do anything about it, or the money. What would be the reason to stop the Environment Agency, were it to be given resources, when developers are advertising houses in areas where there is a high risk of flooding, carrying an advert next door to that saying that there is a potential problem of flooding?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think we would prefer the Environment Agency to be involved at an earlier stage, to be clearly consulted before any planning permission is granted and to be expressing their view clearly as to the appropriateness or otherwise of the development before the local authority takes the decision. There are issues where there are existing developments which have taken place, because I am afraid in the past too many developments did take place in inappropriate locations, whether that was greenfield sites generally or in some cases in flood plains, and those are sites where people have sadly found they have been at risk. Obviously we want to see the Environment Agency taking appropriate steps to encourage sensible remedial action, but prevention is always better than trying to mop up after the disaster.

  112. There is a problem that has been identified where those flooded on this occasion have been told by their insurers that they will not again be insured. What is the Government going to do to protect these people?
  (Mr Raynsford) That, I have to say, is a matter for the individuals concerned and the insurance industry. I think you will appreciate immediately that the Government could not possibly accept a responsibility of last resort as an insurer in cases where private insurance companies were not prepared to offer insurance.

  113. But these people are in a position where this is a national disaster situation and where they are not going to be able to sell on their property.
  (Mr Raynsford) I accept that entirely and there are very serious lessons to be learnt from that, all I am saying is that the Government could not possibly put itself in the position of being seen as an insurance agency of last resort taking risks that private insurers would not be prepared to take. That would not be a wise or sensible position for any government to adopt.

Mr O'Brien

  114. What action are you taking on lessons learnt from the previous flooding and these? Is there a review taking place? Are we going to see some report as to the review of lessons from the previous flooding?
  (Mr Raynsford) The floods of April 1998 were the trigger that led us to believe there was a case for the new PPG 25 which we issued for consultation in April this year. There was a lot of work done between April 1998 and April this year in preparation of that new guidance, and the fact we felt there was a need for a formal planning policy guidance was a pretty clear indication that we took this very seriously indeed. So the discussions have been taking place but, as I said at the outset, because we wanted to learn all the lessons which are to be learned from the recent serious floods this autumn, we have allowed the timescale for the publication of the final version of PPG 25 to slip back a little to enable us to take account of those lessons and take on board any conclusions which come from your inquiry.

  115. What action do you intend to take against planning authorities which allow planning approvals in flood plains before PPG 25 is firmed up? Twelve months it could take, you say. What is going to happen in the meantime? Are you going to take action against local authorities?
  (Mr Raynsford) I hope I did not say 12 months, I hope it will be a matter of a very few months but I did indicate early next year would be the date I would expect to be publishing PPG 25. It is precisely to avoid this risk of local authorities not having good, up-to-date, firm guidance that we want to accelerate the process of getting PPG 25 finalised, obviously, while at the same time taking account of the lessons of the recent floods. Among the issues we are considering is the question as to whether or not there might be a directive, similar to the one which applies in relation to playing fields, in relation to large greenfield developments which would require local authorities to notify us in advance of any proposed significant development in an area where there was a defined risk of flooding. That is one of the possibilities we are considering. We could not do that in PPG 25, we would have to take powers, issue a direction, to give effect to that, but that gives an indiction of just how seriously we do take this issue, and it is one of the options under review.

  116. I would like to press you on this, Minister. We have large developers who have land banks and some of that land obviously is in the areas where PPG 25 will restrict development, so there may be a move to bring that planning application forward. What action are you going to take to ensure that that does not take place?
  (Mr Raynsford) The existing draft guidance, which is out for consultation, is already a material consideration. Authorities do have to give consideration to it. The Environment Agency is certainly going to be extremely vigilant in making sure its views are put to local authorities in such cases, and we would certainly hope that local authorities, mindful of what has happened this autumn, would be far, far more careful in dealing with any applications which pose a potential risk of flooding in the interim period before the new PPG 25 comes out. If there are individual cases where real concerns are felt, then, clearly, I would like to know about them and, in certain circumstances, it might be appropriate for us to use call-in powers. However, I think the main contribution we can make is by highlighting the seriousness of the issue, emphasising that the draft PPG 25 is already a material consideration and encouraging local authorities to look very closely indeed at any applications in areas where there might be a serious risk of flooding.

  117. How many representations have you received from the Environment Agency on matters where they have recommended to a planning authority that development should not take place in certain areas and the authority has ignored that and gone ahead with it? Have you received any representations from the Agency on those issues?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have received the same figures that your Committee has received.

  118. I am talking about pressure from the Department on planning authorities saying "We do not think this is in the best interests of the development".
  (Mr Raynsford) We have, as I said, received the figures and our officials are talking to Environment Agency officials about the implications of those figures because we do need to differentiate cases where the local authority has wilfully ignored sound advice from the Environment Agency from other cases where, for example, on, let us say, a matter of relatively minor importance the Agency has had to express its views but the local authority, with its better local knowledge, took a decision which was an entirely rational and proper decision. Until we have got that analysis it would be wrong for me to jump to conclusions. Just to give an illustration: in the event of a development proposing a sports pavilion on a playing field which is in a flood plain where there will be no risk to individuals because it will not be residential, the Environment Agency may well object, but the local authority may well conclude that this is a perfectly safe and appropriate development to take place, and for good reasons accept it. It would be wrong for us to draw general conclusions about the extent to which the Environment Agency's advice is or is not being properly taken into account without this detailed analysis, which is why my officials are talking in detail to the Environment Agency at the moment.

  119. We have had illustrations from the Environment Agency today where bungalows have been built well below the level of the flood plain and where blocks of flats are being constructed where it has already flooded. In those situations, surely, the people who may be influenced to buy those properties should be safeguarded. If the Environment Agency is saying "We do not think this is good planning approval" and refer that to the Department, what action will the Department take?
  (Mr Raynsford) On the basis of what you are saying there is obviously cause for concern there, and it is very much our wish that the new PPG 25 when it is issued and when it is implemented fully will prevent that kind of circumstance. However, in the meantime, as I was saying, we are trying to get rather more detailed information than we have at the moment on these instances. We are discussing this with the Environment Agency to try and get a feel for the overall picture.


 
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