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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. What about other activities that might increase the risk of flooding, like farming activities, for example, which are not really covered by PPG. What do you intend to do about that?
  (Mr Raynsford) As you rightly say, they are not covered by Planning Guidance because agriculture and agricultural activities are not within the planning system. That is why we, obviously, talk to our colleagues in MAFF about arrangements that are taking place which are designed to help ensure that coastal defences are effective and that land is not put at unreasonable risk of flooding. However, I cannot use the planning system, as you know, because the planning system does not apply.

  141. Do you know whether MAFF are intending to issue guidance to farmers to adjust practices in flood risk areas?
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not know, at the moment, but I am more than happy to discuss that with Elliot Morley and colleagues and come back to the Committee if there are any conclusions that we would like to bring to your attention.

  Chairman: We would like you to have some conclusions, Minister, even if they are not readily available after you have had your talks.

Dr Ladyman

  142. Just one final question: you are right you do not have direct responsibility for agricultural practices, but given that you do have responsibility for housing and areas where housing development takes place, would it not be appropriate for your Department to initiate a review of agricultural practices in those areas by pointing out to MAFF "Here is an area at risk, with development please make sure you have looked at it"?
  (Mr Raynsford) No, I think the right approach is for there to be continuing discussions between departments. I do not think it is appropriate for one department to initiate activities in an area which is the responsibility of another department.

  143. All districts, when they are producing their district plan, would have a view in their mind of the sort of housing requirement they would have to make provision for over the next ten years. Looking at the flood plain land which is in the consultation document, there would be very little development in North Kent because the whole of North Kent is identified in the document as at risk of flooding. If North Kent is not going to have any development, your plans for providing housing on greenfield or brownfield sites are going to be in ruins. How are you intending to address those issues with local planning?
  (Mr Raynsford) That was exactly the point that I was trying to get across earlier in the discussion, that it is inappropriate to take a blanket view that there should be a presumption against any development in a flood plain, because it would clearly entirely prejudice our prospects of achieving 60 per cent brownfield development. In the Thames Gateway area there is substantial brownfield land, existing development sites, which are able to be developed with appropriate safeguards against the risk of flooding. That is the approach that we believe is right. Those safeguards should be in place and they should be paid for by the developer if there is a need for new safeguards. Therefore, we would maximise the use of appropriate sites that can be developed safely but ensure that there are safeguards there.

  144. So will your Department be having specific conversations with the districts that might be affected by this problem, to discuss with them how they should approach the problem? Or are you just leaving it to the PPG to give them that guidance?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is more than the PPG, because that is the way we formally issue guidance to local authorities. We also liaise with the authorities through a number of other means. In the case of the Thames Gateway authorities, the Thames Gateway strategic framework and partnership is a way in which central government and local authorities work together, and PPG 3 already issued does have some pretty pertinent things to say about development of housing on brownfield sites, including those where there is a risk of flooding. So we have already issued guidance and we will continue to ensure that local authorities have access to it.

Mr Stevenson

  145. I am even more confused. I thought I heard you say in answer to Dr Ladyman that it would be inappropriate to issue statements or warnings, whatever it may be, "this development is in a flood plain", which was the brownfield situation.
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  146. My area, Stoke-on-Trent, is more than meeting its targets of houses on brownfield sites and it is riddled with ex coal mines. Where developers come along everybody knows that mine shafts have to be identified, everybody knows they have to be filled and capped, and everybody is told about it. What is the difference between an area like mine that is doing the brownfield stuff, that is more than meeting its targets, knowing full well there is a problem, making it clear there is a problem, making it clear to the developers that they have got to put it right before the development takes place and everybody who buys a house knows that it has been put right? What is the difference?
  (Mr Raynsford) There is not one. I am entirely in favour of—

  147. Why do you not do the same for the flood plains?
  (Mr Raynsford) What I was arguing against was a statement issued saying "this property is safe for a period of up to 20 or 30 years" because I simply did not believe that kind of statement could be made by any responsible public authority given the range of risks that exist. No-one in the case of Stoke would issue a statement saying "you are absolutely safe, there is no possible risk of subsidence".

  148. I understand that and that has helped me quite a lot, Minister. What you are saying is that if a development is proposed on a flood plain, provided that is identified and known, provided the necessary measures are taken, presumably paid for by the developer, then that could go ahead and everybody should know it is on a flood plain, measures have been taken and your Department is satisfied about that?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  149. That is clear?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  150. That is very helpful.
  (Mr Raynsford) The two worries I would have—I am sorry if I did not make this clear—would be either just a blanket statement saying "this is on a flood plain", which would cause undue worry because it would not allow people to make an informed decision based on their knowledge about what remedial steps had been taken or, on the other hand, an overambitious statement saying "you are absolutely safe on this site", which for reasons I have already outlined I just do not think would be reasonable.

Mr Blunt

  151. On a local authority search people should be able to discover information that is available to that local authority.
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  152. Which would include whether or not the property that they are intending to buy is on a flood plain. You want to keep that information from people is what you appear to be saying, those who are unwise enough not to find another route of discovering it other than a local authority search, if the information they were getting was simply telling them it was on a flood plain.
  (Mr Raynsford) I am sorry, I clearly have not been making myself clear on this. I am not trying to keep any information away from anyone.

  153. Good. A simple answer to this question: on a local authority search will you make it a duty upon the local authorities to tell those people who conduct the search whether or not the property is on a flood plain?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is exactly the kind of simplistic approach which I was counselling against because if the duty is simply to say whether or not this property is on a flood plain, this could, perfectly understandably, generate a great deal of anxiety.

  Chairman: You have gone through that, Minister. I think the question is still a relevant one. What information am I going to find when I instruct somebody to do a search?

  Mr Stevenson: Chairman, when a developer in Stoke comes along and they want to develop a brownfield site, the first requirement is to check with the Coal Authority about mine shafts on that site. The second requirement is for the developer to fill them, to cap them and make them safe. Everybody knows about that. It is clear to developers, to purchasers, to everybody, and, when they are made safe, the purchasers know they are safe.


  154. You see what we are saying, in my area it is subsidence because of salt, in his area it is coal mines, and those people expect to be given the information because why should they be put in a position where nobody has told them?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would entirely accept that. What I am saying is that the information must be meaningful. If it is simply a definition "this is within a flood plain" without reference to—

  Chairman: We are not arguing with that.

Mr Blunt

  155. But people will get this information on whatever basis you seek to define it?
  (Mr Raynsford) I hope so, yes.


  156. Minister, will you undertake firstly to give accurate information in as full a way as possible?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  157. We are giving you a lot of leeway because you do not get any leeway on a mine, you are told "there is a mine underneath this property". Talking about flood plains seems to me a pretty mild objection. Will you undertake to make it absolutely plain to anybody who does a local authority search that there is a problem with the siting of these particular developments?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am more than happy to look further into this issue because I can see that the Committee is—

  158. Will you give it to us in writing because we are not very bright here and I think we are still a bit confused.
  (Mr Raynsford) I think we are absolutely in agreement that what we want is accurate information. I am expressing concern about either, on the one side, over-simplistic information or—

Mr Blunt

  159. But over-simplistic for someone buying a house is better than nothing because it alerts them to the fact that there are then other questions they have to answer like "are there defensive mechanisms in place" and they have to go and discover that.
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not agree because over-simplistic information of the example that Dr Ladyman gave of saying "this is absolutely safe up to 2020" could give people a false sense of security.

  Mr Blunt: That is a negative the local authority is being asked to produce which is obviously a rather difficult thing to establish.

  Miss McIntosh: Minister, paragraph 14 states: "The primary responsibility for safeguarding land and other property against natural hazards such as flooding remains with the owner." How can they be responsible if they may not know it is liable to flooding?

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