Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. So it is not a question of flooding or one-off things like that, it is just the water table. If the water table is high you obviously cannot get into a waterlogged hole, that is the problem, and I suppose it might seep out or something.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) We have got to look at the geology and the hydrology of these sites and take an expert assessment, which we now do within a three hour period. That will determine whether, in fact, there are risks associated with disposal either because it is below a water table or because it is on a particular geological or hydrological setting that would mean that leaching into the aquifer or into a water course would be inevitable.
  (Mr Bender) If I may add one MAFF point. There are potential risks in relation to burial of cattle carcasses over a certain age because of the possible BSE infectivity, so that has to be taken into account as well if cattle carcasses are to be buried rather than burned or rendered or disposed of in some other way.

  61. You really have to look at each site on its merits. There is no general rule for each site: can this leach into the water table or whatever?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) What we are doing at the moment in order to get ahead of the game is anticipating disposal patterns. MAFF is now informing us of suspected cases as well as confirmed cases and we are also anticipating what the pattern of cull might be so that we can identify landfill sites and other disposal routes in advance of them being required so that we are in no way holding up the process.

  62. The turn around is three hours now, what was it at the beginning of the crisis?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) It has been about three hours during the day for the last week and a half. Obviously if we get confirmation of a case late in the day when it is dark it is very difficult for our boys to get out on the site and do an adequate assessment so it would be the following morning before that assessment could take place. In those circumstances we were again not on the critical path in terms of disposal because the whole process was taking much longer. We have never been the determining factor as to whether disposal would happen quickly or not.

  63. With all this talk we read of in the press that we got it right in 1967 because we buried all these things and it was dealt with very quickly, you are saying there is no blanket denial of burial, it is simply taken on experience with every single site.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) There are circumstances that are very different from the 1968 outbreak[5] both in terms of scale and in terms of the fact that we have an exceptionally high water table.

  64. I see. Presumably there was no case after 1967 of this virus seeping into the water table? Perhaps you are saying because the water table is much higher.
  (Dr Mance) If I may, it is not just a virus issue. The dead animals are treated with disinfectant to hold them. You have disinfectant, you have the rotting carcass itself which will give rise to quite unpleasant taste problems in, for instance, drinking water supply out of ground water. Since 1967 we have developed a much better understanding of how water moves. The science has moved on so far. The speed we are able to operate at now is because we have ground water vulnerability maps for the whole country. Our staff are very quickly able to assess whether it is a vulnerable zone or not, whether it is an area where ground water is an issue and what the underlying geology is, which is a position we were not in in 1967.

  65. The water table in 1967 for a number of reasons, including the time of year, was significantly lower? There were no cases of it having caused a problem in 1967?
  (Dr Mance) Not that I am aware of.

  66. No evidence that you have?
  (Dr Mance) Not that I am aware of.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I suspect we will never know whether water borne infection was part of the spread.
  (Dr Mance) If I may—we have currently got about 800 staff on loan to MAFF to help with the disposal issues and generally—some of the older engineers who were young engineers in 1967 were on loan to MAFF in 1967. One of the early signals we got from them was the practical experiences then such as being careful about ground water areas. So, ground water issues were certainly taken account of in 1967, it was not just a bury where you wished policy. Certainly in the Midlands where these engineers were involved it would be surprising if that lesson had not been applied across the whole country because ground water does provide 30 per cent of drinking water supplies in England and Wales. I am not sure the absence of bad experiences in 1967 necessarily indicate that burying everywhere is possible, it probably reflects they were equally careful then, albeit on a slightly weaker science base.

  Mr Williams: I think, Mr Leigh, we have—

  Mr Leigh: Yes, I know I was stretching it.

  Mr Williams: The witnesses have useful information they seemed willing to impart.

Mr Leigh

  67. I will get back in order. Obviously if you look in the map of the country and the various flood plains, you will see that a large part of Lincolnshire is a flood plain. I represent a Lincolnshire seat. In fact, there is a nice picture of the water defences in Gainsborough on page 10. We have just had a very successful scheme in Gainsborough where we have spent a very large sum of money improving our defences in a small industrial town and there is all sorts of regeneration which we could not have afforded to do otherwise. Just because there was considered to be this risk to the town of Gainsborough we got this massive building of a riverside wall which allowed us to regenerate the whole waterside area. Is this something which is a common experience around the country? Is it a useful spin-off from flood defences that you can involve regeneration of an industrial site or industrial town?
  (Dr Mance) Yes, where the opportunity arises. I think in Gainsborough's case, if I remember rightly, you actually had access to European Regional Development Funding.

  68. That is true.
  (Dr Mance) That does not apply to the whole of the country but in, I believe, Mr Williams' constituency we have again managed to pull in European funds as well as funds from other bodies to enable us to do a combined scheme beyond our normal funding. It benefits us as well in the partnership approach area.

  69. There are some figures which I do not quite understand. If you turn to page 36, figure 19, you have schemes over budget. For instance, there is a scheme here in my constituency, Torksey Lock, which had a contract price of 729,000 but went very considerably over budget. If you just go down to Gainsborough, phase 2 (flood wall), you have a contract price of 4,850 million but amazingly you have actually delivered final costs cheaper than that. Why the difference? What went wrong in the first and what went right in the second?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I am pleased to say that of the schemes that the Audit Office looked at, 50 per cent of them came in under budget, which is encouraging. On Torksey Lock, quite a common occurrence happened and that is that the ground conditions around the Lock entrance were more difficult to work than had been anticipated. Very often the site investigation does not reveal previous workings that make the work more difficult. In this particular case we could not do as much site investigation as we had wanted because of the need to keep the navigation going. In order to continue we had to do night work and that involved the contractor bringing in additional resources so we could get the canal back into navigation again to the required timetable. Quite often in these cases we have to judge how much site investigation is worthwhile to avoid a potential risk of overrun if the site conditions do not turn out to be as we thought they would be. In this particular case we would judge that for the future we would want to continue to do site investigation probably outside navigation hours in order to get a better understanding of the site conditions before we began. In many cases we work in difficult locations where there have been a lot of historic works that are difficult to predict and, therefore, we build in a contingency allowance, not into the contract, but into our costing of the scheme in order to make sure that we have taken account of possible site difficulties.

  70. How did you manage to do so well in Gainsborough then, coming in under budget?
  (Dr Mance) On all contracts we seek to actively manage costs throughout with sign off certificates at different stages of the contract. In towns such as Gainsborough and other towns where we are working through an area which has been previously developed there are obviously uncertainties. There is an element of risk sharing coming into contracts now where we deal with the contractor to make sure there is a sharing of any savings as well, so there is an incentive on both sides to bring the costs down. On many of our contracts we actually come in within budget intentionally because that is good practice to seek to do so. We do have the odd ones, as Barbara has explained, like Torksey and places, where we are not successful because ground conditions fight against us rather than with us. In Gainsborough the conditions were better than we expected.

  71. A last question. Internal Drainage Boards, again we have Internal Drainage Boards in Lincolnshire. This seems to be quite a good system although very old fashioned. There is nothing wrong with that, by the way, I agree with it. Is that a model that is working well, that can be extended or should be restricted? Tell us a bit about it.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The Internal Drainage Board system does seem to work at the moment. It is becoming more efficient in terms of groupings of Internal Drainage Boards because there was a very large number of them, as you know. Dr Mance may have comments about this?
  (Dr Mance) I think they are a model that works particularly well for the low lying and flat areas where they effectively serve a dual purpose. They evacuate water into our arterial drainage when there is an excessive rainfall and a risk of flooding. In summer they actually manage the water levels to retain it within the area to enable irrigation. They have this twin role. The direct involvement of the local community and the local land owning community is quite important in terms of balancing off the needs of all within that patch during the summer as well as during wet weather. Whether it is extendable I doubt because they exist and function where the water gradients are very flat and often totally dependent on pumping to manage the regime. They are dependent upon having adequate arterial drainage to pump into. It is a partnership with ourselves in many cases.
  (Dr Mance) As Barbara mentioned they are coalescing down, so now there are, I think, 230-odd IDBs remaining. They have 70 to 80 clerks servicing them. They have actually gained, if you like, a critical mass that enables them to maintain enough professional advice themselves, so their practices are actually coming up to modern standards and are a very good example now by and large of how to run that sort of area. They are certainly not a model that warrants tinkering with.

  72. Thank you very much. Sorry, just one last question. Have we moved so far forward in technology and in our preparedness that we are never, ever going to get the kind of disastrous flooding of the coast, particularly the East Coast, particularly areas like Lincolnshire and so on? Can you give us that assurance? I know you are crossing your fingers under the table there, I did notice that, but if you can still try to answer the question.
  (Dr Mance) I think it would be a brave person who said that we would never, ever because we are dealing with nature and the force of nature. Since the 1953 floods a lot of money has been invested in the coastal defences. We have survived, I believe it is, seven events of the same magnitude or greater than 1953 successfully without breach of the defences. The critical issue in 1953 was that defences were not being adequately maintained, not least because of the economic activity going into the war and the failure to catch up with the backlog on the maintenance. So there were several dramatic breaches of defences, one on the Trent, not far from Gainsborough, which gave rise to terrible flooding across a large area with serious loss of life. This comes back to the sordid point Mr Williams made at the start about adequacy of funding. If we do not have the funding to maintain them then the standards will not be sound and we risk getting to the point again where they would breach. I am happy to say at the moment over the last ten years the standard of coastal defences has been improving as we have put the money into it in line with what was MAFF's top priority after flood warning. Following the autumn flooding equal weighting is now being given to protection of urban areas on the coast and on rivers. To maintain the present healthy condition requires continued sound funding on a long-term basis.

  Mr Leigh: Thank you.

Mr Love

  73. Can I start with the Environment Agency. It states on page 15 of your report that only 40 per cent of residents living in flood warning areas actually received a flood warning. Can you tell me why the figure is so low and what it entails, having a flood warning? What are the different ways in which that flood warning can be given?
  (Dr Mance) There are two issues in flood warning in terms of trying to quantify it. One is the proportion of flood risk areas which actually we are able to provide a warning to because we have the ability to predict and give at least two hours of lead time. All the research shows that less than two hours is barely any time for people to react and do anything meaningful. The 40 per cent at the moment relates to our geographic coverage of the flood risk areas. Within those flood risk areas we have raised the successful receipt of warnings by people in the flood risk area from 13 per cent when we took over the lead role in 1996 to, I believe it is, now 60 per cent in the most recent flooding. We have currently got a consultancy carrying out quantitative research to identify just what our success was in different parts of the country and those results will become available in June, so we can then quantify it. We are trying to increase progressively over the next ten years the geographic coverage of systems and then actually increase our success in getting messages to the people in those areas once we have got the systems in place with a target level of 80 per cent geographic coverage and 80 per cent success of getting warnings to people in the risk areas at the appropriate time.

  74. You only achieved 40 per cent at that time. Is there any correlation between the 40 per cent and the 58 per cent of people who ended up being flooded? In other words, your failure to get flood warnings to them, did that have an effect on the number of properties that were flooded?
  (Dr Mance) No. In as much as there is a relationship, it just depends on where the rainfall patterns deposited large quantities of water in relation to those towns where we are currently able to provide a warning service. In that sense it is happenstance as to whether there is any relationship or not.

  75. In my local area they received a flood warning at about half past three in the morning, a bit too late. Prior to that they had received a written communication, that was some time previously, that they may be subject to flooding but that went to a whole host of properties, including 24 storey high flats, so there was some concern locally that you may not have accurately predicted where the flood plain was. How accurate are your flood plain maps?
  (Dr Mance) They are the best estimate we can provide at the present. We do not have perfect information available. We have a programme of work to improve the quality of information but it is a moving target because every development in a catchment that increases the impervious area changes the flood response to rainfall and, therefore, you need to go back and revisit. Obviously climate change, which could actually change the pattern and intensity of rainfall, will change the flood risk as well. We have at the moment available to the public and to planning authorities those areas where we know there is a flood risk, it is our best estimate of the sort of flood risk of about a one per cent probability. It is not perfect but it is the best that we can provide at present. In relation to the letters, we did a mail shot to 843,000 properties in September which were known to be in high risk areas to try to bring home to them that they were in a flood risk area and whether they are in a high rise flat or not, if they are sitting in the flood plain they could still suffer disruption, their car could still get washed away and in moving around they themselves remain at risk. So they could actually find out additional information about the flood risk that they were exposed to.

  76. I was concerned that it may have called into question the seriousness with which someone would take a flood risk warning if their neighbour who lived in a 24 storey flat said "I received one of those as well". It might well have meant that they did not take it quite as seriously as perhaps they should have done. Certainly in my local area people were somewhat aghast when they did get flooded because they did not think it was a realistic possibility. Can I just ask how often do you change the maps? There has been some concern in my local area that they have been revisited since the flooding. Is that the case, have you now redone maps on the basis of the latest information on flooding?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The maps are constantly upgraded as we receive additional information either from floods or our own surveys or, indeed, from information that we get as developers challenge our guidance and advice on planning applications if they feel that we are being excessively cautious about development on flood plains. The maps will have additional information provided to them. The flood maps in outline form are updated on the internet site. The additional information is there for people to request if they need further information, either through the local authority or through ourselves.

  77. A number of the reports comment on the provision of sandbags. I was absolutely appalled to discover that those small number of people in the area that was flooded in my constituency who did enquire about sandbags discovered that nobody would take responsibility and nobody would assist them, so as they sat and watched the rain coming down, as they turned their television screens on to see people being sandbagged all over the country, they could do absolutely nothing until the river arrived at half past three in the morning. Is something going to be done about this?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The primary role of the Agency is to utilise sandbags for flood defence, for repair and propping up the flood defences. I think it is a grey area as to who should provide sandbags to members of the general public and that varied from place to place. One of the most important things in connection with the flood warning system is the mailing and the general promotion we do of the flood warning system so that people in flood areas are aware that they may be at risk and can take note of that and plan in advance what they are going to do should a flood arise. We do have to try to bring into the public mind the fact that they have a responsibility to take as much precaution as they can in the case of floods and certainly that is something we will be pressing forward with.

  78. Let me press you on that because in the area that was flooded in my constituency it is a 100 year occurrence according to the predictions. It last happened in 1958 and, as you would expect, very few who live there now actually were there in 1958. We could say that public awareness was rather low. I have to tell you that when it all arrived at 3.30 in the morning public awareness was still very low that it was likely to happen, so you can imagine the shock. For me to turn around to my constituents and say "it is nobody's responsibility", therefore everybody is passing the buck in terms of sandbagging, is not an adequate answer. Is there anything in any of these reports or any of the recommendations? Can I suggest it should be somebody's responsibility? Do we have that as part of the recommendations?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) We have proposed in the Lessons Learned report that there needs to be a clarification of responsibility for sand bags because the practice was very variable across the country. It is an issue that needs to be resolved.
  (Mr Bradley) Could I add to that. I understand there is a Home Office review under way at present of emergency planning arrangements in parts following up the flooding which is looking in particular at local authority emergency planning arrangements. Clearly EA is much involved in that. The review is due, I believe, to report later this year but obviously the role of local authorities in mopping up after a flood or helping to prevent it is obviously a part of it.

  Mr Love: I would invite you to come to my local authority area to see, it will be instructive to you. They certainly did a bit of mopping up. I think the problem we have is what happened before we got to the stage where it needed to be mopped up. I think that is where the anxieties are.

Mr Williams

  79. Was it not rather poetic that the Agency's own sandbagging depot in the North East itself was flooded by the River Ouse and, therefore, was not available to do its work for the region? How did a mistake like that arise?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I think one of the issues that we perhaps ought to point out to the Committee is the extreme nature of the floods that we have experienced this time around. In many cases, as indeed Mr Love pointed out, floods have not happened for a very, very long time. Fifty years was a short period, there were many places which had not been flooded to that extent for a considerable period of time. It was very, very extreme in terms of weather conditions and, therefore, some strange things happened. I do not necessarily believe that was the reason why we got flooded out however.


5   Note: The year outbreak was, in fact, in 1967, not 1968. Back

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