Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Do you think that it would be desirable to make enquiries in relation to flood advice from the Agency a standard part of the search process in property purchase? Should it perhaps be included in the new buyer's pack that is being considered for house purchase?
  (Mr Bradley) If I could respond on that. Yes, DETR Ministers have indeed said that they will be ready to consider questions in this area as being a valid part of the seller's pack. Negotiations are under way with the Law Society and the Local Government Association in which the Environment Agency is also involved about the best way in which to do this.

Mr Steinberg

  21. Most of my questions I think are going to be put to the Environment Agency. Page 21 in the report, paragraph 2.18, talks about the automated voice messaging system. What surprised me was it says it is only connected to those people who request it. Why is this so?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The automated voice system is one of the methodologies for giving people primary warning of floods. It is only made available to people within risk areas where it is felt that is an appropriate method, because it is not appropriate for all areas. For example, in areas of flash floods it may not be appropriate or in areas of unstable populations where quite frankly people would have been and gone and the job of keeping AVM up to date would have been extremely difficult. We then offer it to people, indeed we have done quite a major marketing exercise in some regions, but until quite recently, until the recent floods in fact, there was often quite a low level of response, people did not take up the system. I think we will now see a much bigger uptake of response.

  22. That is not really the question I am asking. I am saying why is it that people are not warned automatically in areas of great danger? For example, I had a letter from the Environment Agency to a constituent of mine. It says in the letter "Due to legal reasons and the Agency's own policy, a flood warning service cannot be provided without the prior consent of the recipient". Why?
  (Dr Mance) Because it is a computerised system, we actually hold the information about the recipients on a database. So the Data Protection Act actually requires us to get prior consent for inclusion. We are publicising and seeking people's agreement to go on to the database because we are required to by the Data Protection Act. If I may add, we are also exploring the option where we perhaps can get round that by having an automatic right to put addresses on the database.

  23. That is the point I am trying to make. It seems crazy to me that if you are in a situation where there is going to be a bad flood and just because a person has not told you that they want to be informed, that you cannot inform them. They are highly unlikely to take you to court if you inform them there are going to be floods.
  (Dr Mance) Yes, but equally some householders feel that if they are included on the database and that is known it might impact upon the property value. So they see a potential detriment to themselves. It is not quite as easy as you might think in terms of persuading them to agree to this being a good move for them.

  24. It is done on legal reasons.
  (Dr Mance) Yes.

  25. Why does it say "Due to the . . . Agency's own policy"? It says "Due to legal reasons and the Agency's own policy . . .".
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Could I explain other circumstances when it would not be appropriate to have a blanket AVM. For example, sheltered housing, where individuals if they are phoned and are not capable of actually responding to the automatic warning, it is absolutely essential that we reach them by other means otherwise we cause unnecessary alarm, people who are stranded, as it were, in an emergency and get a warning that they cannot personally respond to. I think also the business of people opting to have the voice messaging system is quite important because we want to be sure that people understand what the warnings will be when they come through and what they need to do about them. That engagement with the individual householder I think is quite important.

  26. Why are the figures so disastrous nationally. The percentage of people who are actually part of this service is something like 3.8 nationally, shown in figure 12, why is it so low? You would have thought if the service was available and people knew they would be warned if they were going to be flooded that they would be queuing up to get on the system. You have obviously not told people the system is there.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) We have taken a view in each region as to what the appropriate level of AVM service is because, as I said, it is not appropriate in all circumstances.

  27. Why is it more important in the south?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Southern region piloted this and took the view that firstly they wanted to test out how effective marketing could be. As you can see a fair number of people have signed up out of the hundred and odd thousand that they had, I think 30,000-odd have signed up. Southern also took the view that because of their risk of catastrophic shingle bank collapse a substantial proportion of people were at risk and could be helped by an automatic voice messaging system. Also Southern has got a very stable population so we do not have the problem of very fast turnover that we can have in some urban areas where it would not be appropriate because we would not always be sure that we had identified the right sort of person.

  28. Why is my area so poor, the North East, 1.3 per cent?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Before Dr Mance answers that, can I also say one thing. That is AVM is not the sole method of warning and sometimes it is not even the most effective method of warning. We are looking at a clutch of warning methods which include things like door to door, loudhailers, sirens, obviously television messages, a whole variety of different ways of informing people. Indeed, that AVM percentage is much, much lower than the actual percentage of warning. Of course we are aiming at an 80 per cent level of warning.

  29. Why is the North East so low?
  (Dr Mance) The North East is the lowest region, if you look at the percentage of potential recipients to which AVM would be a suitable method of warning. 11.2 per cent of them are receiving against a national average of 21 per cent. That is partly because of our ability to get warnings in terms of predictions with the nature of the catchments in the North East. It is also though a function of funding. For instance, in this latest funding round we wanted to extend warning systems to 80 communities, the Flood Defence Committee decided to only fund us to do so for 16 which left us with a shortfall. You will see a reflection of our ability to actually carry out the work there given the funding we received.

  30. Can I also keep to this letter the Environment Agency sent a constituent of mine. It says in the letter "With regards to flood defences, the Environment Agency has to justify and prioritise any work it carries out. There are sites around the whole region that have been prioritised for flood defences and usually include urban settlements, where the number of properties at risk is significant". Paragraph 3.9, page 33, seems to bear out the assumption that the policy of the Environment Agency is only to carry out schemes where large numbers of properties are affected or where large numbers of people are affected. It seems to prioritise those particular areas, is that right?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) There is a MAFF priority scoring system which in fact takes account of a whole variety of different issues but clearly where there was not a substantial number of properties the damage avoided by the creation of a Flood Defence scheme would be comparatively small in economic value and, therefore, it would not score high on the MAFF priority rating. I am sure MAFF would want to tell you about their priority rating.

  31. Basically what you are saying is that those who are in small settlements or individual houses are ignored on the basis it is not cost effective to save them. It is just as traumatic to be flooded out in a small settlement or an individual home as it is in an urban area. Surely there should be some fairness in the system?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The MAFF priority scoring system is very much based on benefits and costs. If in fact there was a small number of rural houses where a simple scheme that did not cost very much was possible it might be that the benefits and costs would stack up okay.

  32. Do they not have just as much right to be protected as anybody else? They pay their taxes the same as anybody else.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The policy at the moment is that if the priority scoring system does not bring it up the priority list that a scheme will not be provided. I agree with you that it is just as disastrous for a single householder living in the countryside to be flooded out as it is for a whole community in an urban area.
  (Mr Bender) Since this is a Government responsibility that the Agency are implementing perhaps I can just supplement a little bit what Lady Young has said. It is indeed a system that is based on the benefit to cost ratio. It is essentially an economic assessment. Now, as you say, Mr Steinberg, that does raise issues in relation to social impacts and the impact on individuals and we have undertaken to consider any evidence the Agency provides or other operating authorities provide of a better way of doing it. At present we have taken the view that we have to look at this overall from a net national economic benefit.

  33. I hear what you are saying and I would like to pursue it but I do not have time. I have a lot more I want to ask so I want to move on. Again, quoting from the Environment Agency letter, another point which I picked up. It says "As a result of the recent floods . . ." This is the Environment Agency answering ". . . I have been informed of a number of large erosions that have appeared on your land. Unfortunately, the Environment Agency can only justify reinstatement works, where erosions directly threaten flood defences and is unable to provide any assistance to you." I am not asking you to comment on individual cases, I know you cannot do that, but what he was asking for was the flood defence to be repaired that has been done for generations and generations and generations and he was asking for that maintenance to take place. According to this letter it says: "Unfortunately, the Environment Agency can only justify reinstatement works, where erosions directly threaten flood defences and is unable to provide any assistance to you." What it is saying is after years and years, literally 50, 60, 70, I do not know, probably more years when it was run by the water authorities, repairs are not going to be made because it "can only justify reinstatement works, where erosions directly threaten flood defences". This is a flood defence.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Obviously without knowing the circumstances of the individual case it is quite difficult to comment.

  34. Where maintenance has taken place for generations and has been eroded through the floods, are they going to be repaired, generally speaking, or not?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) What I am not clear about from the letter is whether we are saying that on a temporary basis because of the pressure of work where we are having to prioritise resource towards those defences which are causing a flood risk at the time or whether we are saying that we are not prepared to maintain that defence at all, or indeed whether we are talking about a defence as opposed to a riverbank. It may be that Dr Mance can cast light on that particular matter.
  (Dr Mance) Certainly where we have had defences protecting communities which have been damaged in the recent flooding we have invested to repair and replace them and all of that work is complete. If we have defences which are defending other than built property then we may have taken a view that it is no longer appropriate to expend the resource on that but rather to use the funds to protect built property elsewhere. In a system where, as Mr Williams' initial question was indicating, we are short of resource we are inevitably having to prioritise where we do use the funds available to us.

  35. The letter goes on to say: "I recognise that these comments may appear negative, and will do little to restore the severe damage you recently suffered, nor improve the situation in the future." It seems to me that where generations of work has been done in the past it is now not going to be done in the future. It seems to me that cannot be the right way of doing about it. I am being told that I am nearly finished. I want to move on to a letter that I received from the Chairman of the Durham National Farmers' Union. I want to read this and I hope I do not bore you but I think it is worth listening to. "Along with many others we have suffered from flood damage. This time 100 acres under water, the college sewerage under threat and water backing up around the farm cottages. In June we suffered similar damage . . . In both cases the river either burst its banks, or came through badger setts to flood the farm. In June the Environment Agency repaired the flood bank with 2,000 tons of soil. Most of the repairs done then were either inadequate and were breached or have slipped back into the river suggesting the material used or the method of construction was inadequate. Another repair of a flood bank breach, carried out at the same time, had been constructed lower than the surrounding flood banks. This point was responsible for the main damage caused in November. Environment Agency ground staffs were informed at the time by myself that the repair had been constructed to a lower height than the flood banks either side. When I discussed the issues with the Environment Agency's men on the ground, there appears to be only four men to cover Tees, Wear . . . and South Tyne . . . Whilst I appreciate men and equipment are bound to be shifted to areas of need, why is the Environment Agency so poorly resourced and equipped in the North East of England? Over the past few years maintenance of the flood banks has consisted of cutting the grass, controlling the rabbits and moles. No applications have been made to MAFF to remove the badgers, even though damage done by the badgers is extensive. (Why should we build a new fence then leave the gate open)" because the water just came through the badger holes. "The management of the river upstream of Durham City needs to be addressed, the haphazard maintenance of the past is no longer good enough. If the current situation continues and the threat of increased rainfall comes to fruition then our current farming activities will be put at risk along with many other farms and businesses on the River Wear flood plain." When I got this letter I went out and went along the river banks and walked about three miles. They are in a disgusting state, the maintenance is appalling. There is a lack of resource obviously. What is done is done incompetently. What is the Environment Agency going to do about this to protect people's livelihoods in this area? Or are you purposefully allowing this bit to be neglected so that, in fact, the flood plain can take all the water away so you do not get flooding further down the river? If that is happening that is disgraceful.
  (Dr Mance) In the report you will have seen the NAO flagging the information on the state of assets, which is the poorest of all the country in the North East. That is the result of conscious decisions by the Flood Defence Committees in the North East and certainly in relation to funding over the years. We can only do the work which we have the financial resource to do. We prioritise it quite ruthlessly as a consequence to try to make sure we get the best benefit for the maximum number of people in the circumstances. That does mean in rural areas where the number of properties at risk is low and I did not hear in the letter whether water had actually gone into the farm properties at all as opposed to across the fields. We do the minimum necessary in order to provide some form of defence. The fact that they were damaged and washed away in the autumn may not be surprising as we experienced some of the most severe flooding and rainfall patterns for probably 100 years, if not on record, and inevitably we would expect damage to them.

  36. If the maintenance had been done badly and not been done correctly that does not help the situation, does it?
  (Dr Mance) Clearly in that specific instance, if we can have the details, we will investigate and write to you dealing with that particular issue. The generality is one of having to prioritise against scarce resource.

  37. It is not particularly that individual case I am talking about because usually you find if you have an individual case like this it is a general issue throughout the whole of the area. What I am saying is that if it is taking place on this stretch of the river presumably it is taking place on the rest of the stretches of the river right the way down from the source into the city centre. That is just not good enough. The money is actually being wasted, resources are being thrown away if the job is not being done properly.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Obviously if we could get a copy of the particular circumstances, because I do not think one can extrapolate—

  38. You have had them.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone)—from one instance to the totality of the maintenance regime of the Agency.

  39. You have had them.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Certainly everything that Dr Mance says about priorities is the case.
  (Dr Mance) In relation to our maintenance of defences, with the scarce resources we have got we had to throw large sums of money at the operational response during the autumn to hold defences in place. In doing so we only had one breach of an Agency defence in Yorkshire and the North East, which was the one at Gowdall. I think on the maintenance standards in the area, given the resources we have got, which are very limited, we have actually managed to sustain the defences particularly for the large conurbations and villages.

  Mr Steinberg: I invite you to come to Durham and take a look.


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