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

Memorandum by Tony Burch Esq (FP 17)

  I worked for the Environment Agency (EA) and its predecessors the National Rivers Authority (NRA) and the Water Authorities in their Flood Defence function from 1973 to 1997. From 1987 to 1997 I worked on development and flood plain matters at local, regional and national levels. I was a member of the national group which provided NRA input to the drafting of the DoE Circular 30/92: Development and Flood Risk. I led the NRA's R&D Project 299—Planning and Flood Risk: A Strategic approach for the National Rivers Authority (research contractors—Middlesex University, Flood Hazard Research Centre). Until 1996, I led the Environment Agency project which produced the EA's Policy and Practice for the Protection of Flood Plains, published in 1997.

  There is no doubt that the practice of developing on flood plains needs to be controlled.


  The current planning approach is to consider flooding as a development constraint which needs to be identified in development plans. This involves flood plain mapping which has to be fit for planning purposes. Current thinking involves indicative maps produced by the EA, followed by detailed flood risk assessments by the EA or others, or first time risk-based maps produced by the EA. Either way the maps contained in development plans must be related to policies in the plan and be fit for the purpose of that policy. This means that both the policy and its associated map must be able to stand up to public scrutiny at a planning inquiry. This approach tends to lead to polarisation between those who want development on flood plain land (with appropriate flood defence measures) and those who do not want it. It also involves liability if a flood risk assessment is found to be wanting.


  2.1  Another way to approach the problem, which was advocated some years ago, is to consider the land drainage system (rivers and flood plains) as resources which need to be protected so the land drainage process (draining rain water from a land mass to the sea) can function properly. Rivers already benefit from statutory protection. Flood plains are only protected through the planning process or, in the case of statutory main rivers, by way of EA byelaws, which are subservient to planning decisions.

  2.2  I think it is agreed that flood plains are important national resources which are in need of better protection (not least because of global warming). One way of doing this may be to treat them in the same way as other resources, such as conservation sites or areas of outstanding natural beauty, are protected. This is to designate them. This would move the argument away from the development planning and control arena to the fluvial processes and weather arena. The designation process would involve the EA showing that a flood plain was fluvially important and in need of the protection that designation would bring.

  2.3  In many ways flood plains are no different from the man made flood defence assets and rivers for which the EA are responsible for ensuring that they are fit for their purpose. The purpose of rivers and flood plains is to drain rain water from the land to the sea in a way which meets the needs of land uses which are dependent on that process. This is not the same as protecting people and property from flooding, the EA's tenet, it is a wider purpose. Designation of flood plains may provide the mechanism which will allow the EA to ensure that flood plans are fit for their wider purpose. It may take some time to carry out but the conservation bodies have been doing it for some years and have steadily built up their coverage. Major flood events such as we have been having produce excellent evidence of areas which may benefit from designation. Designation does not have to wait for the development plan process and it could be driven by the EA.

  2.4  I think it is widely appreciated that to severely restrict development on flood plains over night may have a significant impact on the availability of land for development and on the continued economic growth of some areas which depend on such development. To manage this problem, may I suggest a strategy in which the Government puts down a market that it expects there to be no more, or at the very least very little, new development on flood plains (which will have to be defined and identified by way of the development plan process or designation) in 10, 15 or 20 years say, and local planning authorities be required to carry out a planned withdrawal from dependence on the use of flood plain land for new development.

  2.5  If it is recognised that a transition period is needed to apply changed planning priorities and to change patterns of development then there will be greater acceptance of the process. It would need to combine the strategic land use planning of planning authorities with the strategic flood defence planning of the EA. Because there may be existing patterns of development which rely on the further use of flood plain land for their success, there may need to be an accord between planning authorities and the EA to let this proceed (with appropriate flood defences provided by the developers) in the knowledge that it was part of a transition to a pattern of development which did not rely on the use of flood plain land.


  The link between the EA and planning authorities which Circ 30/92 and draft PPG25 give, is that the EA is a statutory consultee. Is this the best link? The EA is required to exercise a general supervision over all flood defence matters. Would a link based on this or one which included this more formally produce a closer relationship than that based on statutory consultee? Would combined strategic planning work better if it was?

Tony Burch
Chartered Civil Engineer

8 December 2000

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