Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs



  The Government responded to the Agriculture Select Committee's Follow-up Report on flood and coastal defence in April 2001. The Government response addressed calls made by the Committee for more action to be taken to remedy shortcomings identified by the Committee in its 1998 Report and to consider a number of new issues.

  The purpose of this memorandum is to inform the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee of progress made since the Government's response in April 2001 focusing in particular on:

    —  The institutional and funding arrangements.
    —  Development in the flood plain.
    —  The adequacy of funding for flood and coastal defence.
    —  Means for ensuring delivery of the long-term strategy.
    —  Accountability and leadership at local level.

  The structure of this memorandum is the same as that of the Government's response in April, with the Committee's earlier recommendations and comments highlighted in bold print.

Paragraph 3 (Recommendation)

  Nevertheless we reiterate our belief that there is a need for far more fundamental institutional reform.

Paragraph 4 (Recommendation)

  We welcome this [funding] review but are concerned at the prolonged timescale, especially as it provides an excuse to delay response to all questions on funding or other arrangements whilst the review continues.

  The institutional framework which governs decision-making responsibilities is inextricably linked to the current arrangements for funding flood and coastal defence work and reflects the relative responsibilities of the Environment Agency and local authorities in this area. The Flood and Coastal Defence Funding Review Steering Group evaluated both funding mechanisms and institutional arrangements with a view to ensuring funds were appropriately sourced and targeted and delivered effectively and efficiently. The Group presented its findings to Ministers at the end of September 2001 and its Report will shortly be published along with a consultation document based on the Steering Group's conclusions. The consultation exercise will consider both long-term and short-term changes.

  The options for change encompass core principles identified in the Stage 1 Report of the Financial, Management and Policy Review of the Environment Agency which considered how the current funding and institutional arrangements impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Environment Agency.

  Whilst the Review was underway, MAFF/DEFRA and the Environment Agency continued to collaborate successfully in introducing measures to streamline scheme processing and in utilising the additional funding provided in the 2000 Spending Review and in the Autumn 2000 "package" to accelerate river flood defence works and to undertake Catchment Flood Management Plans. Government provided £17.5 million to repair and strengthen defences damaged in 2000 and to assist the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards with their emergency costs. Government also exceptionally funded design and feasibility costs for EA accelerated river flood defence schemes, thereby reducing the call on local authorities for levies.

Paragraph 5 (Recommendation)

  We add our support to the ETRA Committee recommendation that only very exceptional development should be allowed in the functional flood plain. The Government should consider whether the Environment Agency should have the power to refer planning applications on which it has reasonable concerns regarding flooding to the Minister.

  The Government is pleased to report that Planning Policy Guidance Note (PPG) 25 Development and flood risk was published in July 2001. It contains guidance for local authorities on how flood risk should be taken into account as part of the planning and development process, so helping to ensure that flood plains are used for their natural purposes, continue to function effectively and are protected from inappropriate development.

  The Government considers that a Flooding Direction could be a useful tool to guard against the risk of local planning authorities wilfully ignoring Agency advice, or the Agency sustaining unjustified objections. However, it seems sensible to wait and see how effective the PPG is before introducing such a measure. The Government has given a commitment to review the guidance three years after publication in the light of experience and will continue to monitor closely the impact of the guidance.

Paragraph 6 (Comment)

  We look forward to reading this ["lessons learned"] report and any subsequent Government proposals "to improve the responses and improve the structures we have in place to protect people from floods".

  As well as highlighting successful aspects of the handling of the autumn 2000 floods, the "Lessons Learned" Report drew attention to areas where there was room for improvement. These included further enhancements to the flood warning arrangements and addressing the confusion in the minds of the public about whom they should turn to for advice in the event of local flooding and the range of problems it can cause.

  In respect of flood warning the EA aims to issue warnings two hours before flooding starts by four routes: direct automatic voice messaging (public have to register); loudhailer; volunteer flood warning; and sirens. In 2001, 322,000 more homes have access to all four warning systems than in 2000. The EA has also:

    —  extended flood warnings to new communities;
    —  run national and regional public awareness campaigns;
    —  targeted recruitment drives to enlist more people to receive flood warnings direct;
    —  run flood warden recruitment drives; and
    —  preparing a revised investment strategy designed to deliver further improvement.

  In respect of clarifying responsibilities, the EA is checking the feasibility of its "Floodline" service acting as a "first stop shop" for enquiries. Clear contact details are being provided in TV weather reports and free publications, which also provide guidance on action for homeowners to take before, during and after flooding. Plasticised guidance cards are also being issued to those affected by floods previously or in high risk areas.

  As part of the Government's review of emergency planning arrangements (launched by the Home Office but now being led by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office), a public consultation period ended on 31 October. A report is expected to go to Ministers by the end of the year.

Paragraph 7 (Recommendation)

  On the face of it, the £51 million announced, though welcome, is insufficient. The Government should reassess this provision urgently.

  Aggregate annual investment in flood and coastal defence is currently of the order of £400 million in England. MAFF/DEFRA funding to support capital works is set to increase by more than 50 per cent from an outturn of £66 million in 2000-01 to £114 million in 2003-04. In addition, some £268 million is provided to support local authorities' expenditure on flood and coastal defence through the revenue support grant arrangements. This profile reflects a realistic view of what operating authorities can achieve in building up the programme. Updated research results available on estimates of risks to national economy from flooding and coastal erosion will inform investment decisions in SR 2002.

  Two reports have recently been published which have implications for future investment needs. Climate change research concluded that no single event or set of events could be attributed to climate change but they are consistent with climate change predictions. Further research has been commissioned to examine the potential impacts of climate and other changes on flood occurrence and conclusions will be incorporated in future guidance. The second recent report is on technical approaches to river flood risk management and has been produced by the Institution of Civil Engineers' Presidential Commission. The Government is considering the recommendations.

  The funding review referred to above has also evaluated, and will make recommendations on, the mechanisms for ensuring delivery of Ministerial priorities for flood and coastal defence with a view to ensuring funds are targeted appropriately.

Paragraph 8 (Recommendation)

  We believe that the Government should explore ways of taking account of these additional costs in the year in which they occur.

  The Government has explored options for improving the funding mechanisms through the Funding Review which will report shortly. DTLR are also proposing to publish a Local Government White Paper later in the year which will include consideration of the scope for reform of local government financing arrangements.

Paragraph 9 (Comment)

  The Government responded to the situation by relaxing rules on CAP schemes, including extending application dates and showing flexibility on set-aside regulations. Mr Morley also expressed his willingness to consider other measures such as "using agricultural land as winter flood storage areas and water management areas". We welcome the Government's willingness to exercise national discretion to help farmers in this dire situation.

  The aim of the Catchment Flood Management Plans (CFMPs) is to provide the vehicle for an holistic view of flood risk management in each catchment. This could include land use management to reduce run-off or provide for the storage of floodwater if this assists with flood management. CFMPs will provide the information on which those individuals and authorities responsible for such decisions can be encouraged to act in a co-ordinated way.

  The launch of the CFMPs initiative has been brought forward with national funding and has been placed on "fast track" for development of the programme of plan production. Delivery is on target for launch of the main programme in early 2002. The whole project will probably require a four to five year programme which will be carefully prioritised to give early results for particularly sensitive areas.

Paragraph 10 (Comment)

  We are pleased to note that Mr Morley has promised that a draft proposal "will come out in the near future" on assessments in relation to ploughing up natural and semi-natural grassland.

  The first round of consultations on options for implementation of the uncultivated land provisions of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive was completed earlier this year; the second round on the implementing legislation and associated guidelines finished on 31 October 2001. The Government is considering the responses received to the second consultation with a view to making regulations shortly.

Paragraph 11 (Comment)

  Even at the very top there is an awkward division of responsibilities between MAFF and DETR and no obvious "Mr (or Ms) Flood", a designated person ultimately responsible for flood and coastal defence.

  Flood and coastal defence policy in England rests fully within DEFRA, with Margaret Beckett and Elliot Morley. In order to ensure a "joined up" approach to flood and coastal defence, arrangements are in place to reconvene the inter-Departmental Task Force as needed, chaired by the DEFRA Parliamentary Under Secretary (Commons), Elliot Morley, and supported by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.

  In addition the Central Local Partnership established a Severe Weather Sub-Group which meets regularly to enable representatives from central and local government to discuss and ensure a co-ordinated approach to ongoing initiatives to reduce the risks from flooding and coastal erosion and other severe weather issues.

Paragraph 11 (Recommendation)

  The ongoing review of funding gives the Government an opportunity to develop a clear, long-term strategy and the means for ensuring its delivery. We believe that the Government must take this opportunity and recommend that it do so.

  The Government retains its current policy aim to reduce the risks to people and the developed and natural environment from flooding and coastal erosion. In order to advance the national strategy for delivering this aim, MAFF introduced a series of High Level Targets (HLTs), applicable primarily to all operating authorities, to facilitate a more certain and integrated delivery of Government aims and objectives and national priorities and to make possible assessment of achievement. These HLTs have been in effect in England since 1 April 2000 and in Wales since 1 April 2001. Reports on achievement are becoming available to Ministers who have undertaken to publish them. The Reports will provide a basis for assessing the effectiveness of the implementation of policy. The Government recognises that the HLTs will need amendment and extension following experience over the first one or two years.

Paragraph 12 (Recommendation)

  It is clear that accountability and leadership at a local level is required and that either greater powers are required by the Environment Agency or stronger direction from DETR.

  The reports on High Level Targets will help to identify shortcomings in delivery of the Government's aims, objectives and priorities and will provide a basis for decisions on the need for remedial action, and its form. The Government has undertaken to consider the present institutional arrangements in the Funding Review.

Paragraph 13 (Comment)

  It is vital that both major capital works and actions taken by individual householders are based on the best possible science, rather than panic measures; and it may be that more funding or research effort needs to be invested in this area. All these issues should be addressed as part of a long-term approach to a sustainable policy on flood defence.

  As indicated above further work is underway on the impact of climate change. In addition, the EA are continuing work to improve the definition of flood risk areas.

  In order to further encourage sustainable development of flood and coastal defences the EA has submitted a report recently on how the decision-making framework supporting investment could take account of social impact, health, frequency and scale of flooding, and consistency in standards of defence in each locale. The issues raised in this and the Institution of Civil Engineers' Presidential Commission report will be addressed through the forthcoming consultation on the Funding Review.

23 November 2001

1   Eighth Special Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 2000-01, HC 437, Reply by the Government to the Third Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 2000-01, "Flood and Coastal Defence: Follow up" (HC 172)Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 16 January 2002