Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-98)



Mr Love

  80. Can I just move you on slightly. There is an argument raging over in my area about the causes of this particular flood. Frankly it does not help that there is considerable confusion amongst the public, indeed amongst almost everybody, about who has responsibility for different aspects, whether it is the local authority who may have the responsibility for the riverside, the Environment Agency which has responsibility, we are talking about the utility, whether it be whichever water company and, indeed, the Government in whatever guise, DETR, the Department of Agriculture and others. I know you are suggesting that there should be a one stop shop in terms of people being able to find out information but is there not an argument that certainly after the event, when you are trying to find out the causes and put them right, that some lead authority should take responsibility for doing that? I ask the Environment Agency if you are the most likely lead authority in this area?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Certainly I agree with you that it is very confusing for the public as to who is responsible. One of our propositions in our Lessons Learned report is that Floodline be used perhaps not as a one stop shop but certainly as a first stop shop. It would allow people during a flood emergency to come in on one nationally recognisable line and be diverted and get information about all the aspects of flooding. Indeed, we did that quite successfully after an initial period on the Floodline when we were able to give highways information because, of course, the Highways Authorities are often part of the equation. In terms of aftermath, each of the flooding incidents will have an aftermath review to decide whether it was an Agency responsibility, a local authority responsibility or any of the other operating authorities, including the Highways Agency. One of the most important things I think is for communications with the public to be good. We have been involved in a very large number of public meetings locally with local authorities in order to try and explain what happened and to explain what is going to happen for the future. Geoff Mance may want to talk about aftermath reviews.
  (Dr Mance) Only to point out one of the recommendations in the Lessons Learned report again is for a detailed analysis of the experience of what the causes of the flooding were this time. It has been an exceptional event in terms of the geographic coverage and the duration. It was not one flood it was a multiplicity of floods within about a six week period. Understanding just what caused the actual flooding in each location is quite important to teasing apart what the issues are that both we and MAFF in future need to address.

  81. I am pleased you said that because, as you would expect in my local area, the local authority is there and it is a democratically elected body and most of the public concern has been expressed to them. Their attempts to get information from the utility or, indeed, from the Agency have met with some difficulty. Indeed, so much so that I have had to write to the Agency in relation to these matters to try and get things moving. They are unable to state what the reasons were because they do not have the information, yet they are coming under sustained attack—I think that is probably the right word—from the public who wish to know, not least because many are subject to insurance claims and need to have some information in order to do that. Is that not an appalling situation? Should we not be in a position where someone can explain to the public if not why we failed them on the night at least why these events occurred?
  (Dr Mance) It can be quite a long drawn out exercise to understand the events that take place. In Northampton it took us 12 months of mathematical modelling and surveying of catchments and recycling back into the modelling before we fully understood the events that had hit Northampton and, therefore, what the future intervention should be and should look like. All too often people presume you have omnipotent understanding and awareness of the situation; we do not. It does take us time to investigate, take apart and understand. If it is not actually the main river but a multiplicity of sewers, minor channels and blockages it can take some time to tease it apart and understand fully what happened before you can even get to the position of explaining. That does lead to frustration which we are well aware of. There is no easy way of overcoming the difficulties of coming to terms with and understanding what did happen in these circumstances. Clearly at the moment we have a large number of locations to investigate and understand.

  82. I understand that and sympathise with the volume of work, if I can use that phrase, you are under. Finally, one of the other things that the report—this is the NAO report—comments on is the variations in the investment in different regions in the country. There are lots of reasons stated in the report. What reassurance can you give to the public that they will receive the same standard of service in the South of England as they do in Scotland, Wales or other parts of the country, because from my reading of the report they certainly cannot? How can we reassure them that they are being delivered with a reasonably consistent service nationwide?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I think what we can say is that the processes for deciding how expenditure will be proposed are reasonably consistent in that the Agency adopts consistent processes for putting forward schemes according to the MAFF priority scoring system. What we cannot guarantee with our supervisory role is that there will be consistent levels of investment across the country because that is a matter for Flood Defence Committees which we cannot direct in our supervisory role. They have a majority of local authority members on them and take decisions on a local basis. We are not able to guarantee that. The MAFF priority scoring system also does take a constant methodology for deciding which schemes should get priority and what work should get priority. That does not mean to say everyone in the country has a consistent level of protection. We have heard already that in areas where schemes would not reach the right level of priority scoring they might not be eligible for flood defence work. It is a very complicated system and not consistent, other than in its methodology.

  83. The report details all the different definitions there are about rivers and water courses in different parts of the country, about how they map risk in different parts of the country and the conditions of all the assets. Obviously we have to look here to Government Departments and the Agency to try and standardise this in different parts of the country. Should a major effort not be made to get everybody to work to a similar system so you could say there was a reasonable amount of consistency nationwide? Perhaps Mr Bender would like to respond to that.
  (Mr Bender) I do not want to pass the buck, I might ask Lady Young to come back on the question of the water courses. In November 1999, the Government issued high level targets for flood and coastal defence coming into operation from last April. The idea behind those targets was to try and ensure more certain delivery of the Government stated policy aims and objectives. There is now a requirement on operating authorities to produce by 31 March this year a publicly available policy statement setting out their plans for delivering the policy aims and objectives. There is going to be more transparency from a few days ahead of what each authority is going to be doing in order to deliver flood defence. I do not know whether Lady Young wants to say more about the water course point.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) On the issue of critical water courses as opposed to main rivers, we have in our Lessons Learned report suggested that there be a look taken at whether there is a need for some rationalisation of that where critical ordinary water courses would contribute to major flooding risk and, therefore, might be more appropriately brought under the aegis of the Agency. However, that would need to be associated with the transfer of funding and that is clearly to be a very difficult one. At the end of the day even if we are responsible for other than just main water courses, the local decisions of Flood Defence Committees are things that determine both priorities and investment. The high level targets will be a process of illuminating the differences. At that stage it will be for Government to decide what it needs to do about those differences.

  Mr Williams: I think Mr Rendel wants to ask some follow-up questions.

Mr Rendel

  84. Thank you. I am going to ask two follow-up questions, if I may. The first one is the Lessons Learned report reveals that you have used some 2.5 million sandbags. That is not a sandpit, it is a hell of a beach. What has happened to all of that sand?
  (Dr Mance) The sandbags are fascinating because a large majority of them seem to evaporate after a flood. That may sound slightly strange but people who make use of them—

  85. As a scientist I have never heard of sand evaporating before.
  (Dr Mance) Local inhabitants are all too keen to acquire them and stack them behind their garages or by the back door in case the flood comes back. A large number do just appear to disappear, they literally disappear into the backs of people's gardens and are stacked away.

  86. So "evaporate" is a nice word for theft?
  (Dr Mance) The cost of recovering the sandbags and reusing them would be very high so those that we do recover and local authorities recover tend to go to landfill sites for disposal. The old hessian sack type rot down very easily and the more modern type perhaps could be recovered because they are woven plastic and are more robust, but those are the ones that tend to disappear into people's back gardens and backs of garages for next time. The sand content people often apply to the garden as a soil lightener because it is a nice attractive way of actually easing clay soils, for instance. They are a strange beast, a sandbag, because they tend to have this life of their own. After the event is over, the water has gone away, with our professional partners, as we refer to the local authorities, we recover nowhere near the two and a half million we put in place. It is a much smaller number that are actually recovered.

  87. Do you know how many?
  (Dr Mance) I would not like to hazard a guess but it is certainly nowhere near the two and a half million. The scale of recovery operation is much lower than the scale of delivery operation.

Mr Williams

  88. I would assume that evaporation is the preferred value for money option as far as the Agency is concerned?
  (Dr Mance) Yes, very much so.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) It does also mean that hopefully the problems of acquiring sandbags should a flood recur might be rather less than was anticipated.

Mr Rendel

  89. Given the answers on progress, to follow up some of what Gerry Steinberg was saying earlier about the automatic voice messaging, and I have that in my area I understand, you were saying, I think, Lady Young, that you did not give it to anybody who did not ask for it or who said they did not want it, that was accepted, and you did not do that in areas of rapid turnover because it simply would not be worth it. My area may not be in your sense an area of rapid turnover but we do lose something like a seventh of our population every year, which means that there must be quite a number of people who have asked for it and presumably are still on your list of telephones who are going to get your automatic message but actually there is somebody else there now. What are you doing about that? How often do you go back to people and say "Did you know you are on our list? Do you actually still want it?" How often do you go back to those who said they did not want it and say "Are you still there or is there now a new owner who might want it?"
  (Dr Mance) We actually check the numbers two to three times per annum to make sure that they are still valid to keep the database current. You can appreciate at that level of change and turnover, if you are in a high turnover area, such as Earl's Court, picking that out at random, which is known for its very high turnover, then the level of effort put into the administration of tracking, updating the database and then your confidence in it when it comes to the time of need is actually a serious issue. The other issue is it is very tempting to focus in on, say, the AVM system, the technological fix, but what we have actually focused on is the success rate at delivering warnings that people acknowledge they have received and responded to irrespective of method. The most important thing is to succeed in that.

  90. I do not think you have really answered the question. If somebody else moves in but retains the number that was there before—
  (Dr Mance) They will still receive the message unless they ask to be taken off the list. Once they know they are on the list we check the validity of the number. They may not know how to respond to the telephone message when they receive it. It is one thing to receive a message, it is another to know what to do having been warned that a flood is coming.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I think one of the important things to recognise is the three levels of flood warning that we now operate which our market research has shown are much more understood by the public. Floodwatch, which is really a general alarm to people to know that floods are around, then Flood Warning and then Severe Flood Warning. Hopefully, provided the flood is not rising so quickly that there is very little opportunity to warn people progressively, we begin to get an anticipation that flooding is possible in a particular area for at least a period before the flood actually happens. Obviously there are some areas where the rivers rise so quickly that we have no ability to do that or in some cases where defences which we had assumed would sustain do not and then there is a flood happening at a much faster rate than we could have anticipated.

  91. Finally, you have told us how people will find out they are on, because eventually every four months or so they will get a call, but what happens to people who are not on because their predecessors said they did not want to be on?
  (Dr Mance) Again, we now run an annual public awareness campaign drawing attention to it so that people can actually contact us asking to go on if they wish.

  92. That is advertising, television?
  (Dr Mance) Yes. In this last year we ran television advertising. Each year we are running a different form of campaign and retaining those bits which the market research shows work and dropping those things which do not work. I find it fascinating that in our first year major poster advertising had no impact at all, so we dropped it in favour of television and radio adverts.

  Mr Rendel: Why do you think the Lib Dems do not use it.

Mr Williams

  93. Two quick further questions. Water courses are divided into main rivers and ordinary water courses. It is a meaningful designation because the resources that might be available differ according to the category. I gather that this is an historical and seemingly somewhat arbitrary division. How far back does it go and why is it perpetuated?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I do not know quite how far back it goes, I am sure Geoff would be able to tell you. Certainly it is a useful distinction in that many of the ordinary water courses would not pose a major flood risk, they are much better dealt with on a local level. There are some of the ordinary water courses, known as critical ordinary water courses, where if they have got the potential for a major flood or meet a series of other circumstances, criteria which the Agency has developed for itself, we would seek for them to be made into main rivers as opposed to critical ordinary water courses. There is a bit of tidying up that ought to be done in that fashion, but it only comes to about between five and ten per cent additional length of main river in our estimation. It does have major funding issues associated with it, however.

  94. You said that you would seek to have them redesignated. Who would do the designation?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) There is a rather tortuous and quite expensive and lengthy process for seeking what is known as enmainment, not a happy term. We would put forward a proposition and Dr Mance will tell you exactly how it operates from then.

  95. Might I suggest in that case, in case we may be able to help you with some recommendations, you put a note in on the way it works and any problems that the way it works presents to you. That would be very helpful and we might be able to make some observations ourselves on that that would be useful to you[6]. Secondly, if we look at table ten on page 18, in fact Mr Love would be particularly interested in this I should think because it shows that the flood risk priority area maps are prepared in each region of the country and, for example, Thames, which was due to prepare 81 maps, and therefore covers his area, had prepared only three by the time this report was completed. More dramatically, Southern was due to prepare 40 and had only prepared one, yet Southern took a major part of the impact of the floods. Of 10,000 houses that were flooded, 2,500—a quarter—were in Southern region. Would the preparation of these maps in any way helped in the preparation for the unfortunate incident that struck them?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Can I say that we have now completed 57 per cent of these maps but, of course, these are the more detailed mappings. The indicative flood plain maps are indeed comprehensively available right across the country. This is mapping of development hot spots to allow us to understand more particularly what is happening in each of those areas. In Southern region I do not believe any of the flooding would have been prevented by having a more adequate risk priority mapping process going forward. Many of the places that flooded in Southern region flooded because it is quite difficult to see how an adequate flood defence system could be provided.

  96. In the case of Sussex, we see in paragraphs 3.9 and 3.10 that flood defence proposals were not proceeded with. Were they actually in areas that were affected by the most recent floods? Again, would this have been of very significant benefit if they had gone ahead?
  (Dr Mance) The answer is, yes, some of the communities were flooded, several repetitively over the last 12 months and clearly they would have benefitted had there been defences in front of them.

  97. Would there have been time for them to have been in effect by then?
  (Dr Mance) In several cases the proposals go back a number of years. Had the funding been available the defences would have been built in time, yes.

  98. Who refused to go ahead with them?
  (Dr Mance) It is a question of having adequate funding available from the Flood Defence Committee. In this case the Flood Defence Committee was giving higher priority to coastal schemes rather than fluvial schemes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for the evidence and for the impromptu tutorial on burial of carcasses stimulated by Mr Leigh. When I heard his question I was glad he was not here at the start when you, Mr Bender, indicated you had spent so much of your time over the last few weeks concentrating on the foot and mouth outbreak. It was very illuminating, very helpful, thank you very much for the manner in which you gave your evidence.



6   See Evidence, Appendix 1, page 17 (PAC 00-01/154). Back

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