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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Gentlemen, welcome. For the record, we have Mr Elliot Morley who is the Minister for Flood Management, one of his many titles, I think, and Sir John Harman who is the Chairman of the Environment Agency. This is an update on where we are on flood defence. Everybody is aware of the fairly catastrophic winter we had and the real crisis we had in the management of floods. Everybody is obviously very apprehensive that we might have another dose this year. The Committee has reported in some detail on this and we have had a series of updates. This is a further update just to demonstrate our continuing interest and to be able both to air the concerns and to highlight what actions may or may not have been taken. The papers have recently had some fairly apocalyptic stuff about houses being unprotected, insurance being withdrawn and large parts of the United Kingdom at risk in terms of financially, or flooding or both. The issues which arise are obviously ones of money, then there is one of insurance, there is one of planning and there is one of the actual management of who does what, which, as far as I am concerned, is still lost in byzantine complexity which I do not understand. Therefore I find it almost entirely impossible to explain to my constituents when they say, "Who should be doing this?" My answer is, "I'll try and find out," but I usually fail. So in the course of this session, if we could at some stage have the absolute idiot's guide to who is responsible for what, when, where and how soon, that would be extraordinarily helpful to everybody in practical terms. Can I start, Sir John, with you and ask you first of all, have you got as much money as you need? What do you think you will need? Could you say a little bit about the time lags between the identification of a problem and your being able to do something about it in terms of environmental assessments, that sort of thing? There is obviously an expectation amongst people that there is a problem and that it can be sorted immediately, but we all know that occasionally—or more than occasionally—it may take a little longer than that. Therefore, perhaps you could start and tell us if you have enough money?
  (Sir John Harman) Thank you, Chairman, and good morning everybody. The Agency is obviously going to say—and I think this is not something that the Minister would disagree with—that there needs to be more investment in flood defence. It is a very good question, though, as to how much additional money is required. Rather than take a sort of stab at it or just take what the Agency feels, I would refer the Committee to the research that the Agency and DEFRA have commissioned and which reported last year. This research makes some assumptions which I will return to so you are clear in what context the figures are being offered. It identified a need for an additional £120 million of capital expenditure for flood defences and £20 million for maintenance. It also identified, because it did not factor in any assumptions about the costs of adapting the standards of flood defence to assumptions about climate change, that there might be a further £30 million to £60 million arising from that. I would offer that research as probably the most informative and independent view to the Committee. The research was asked to evaluate what would be required to maintain broadly the present policies on flood defence; if Government or Parliament decided that there had to be a change in policy, for instance on standards, then you would have to do a recalculation, but to maintain the present policy, which is the standards we have, extended to all the places where they might apply, and then maintained. That is the answer.

  2. I am sorry, I have not quite understood what the answer is. Tell us and remind us what the answer is.
  (Sir John Harman) £120 million for capital—the research provided these figures—£20 million for maintenance, £30 million to £60 million to accommodate the effects of climate change.

  3. That is an annual amount, I take it?
  (Sir John Harman) That is an annual amount, yes. The ICE said something in their report—I think they may have said more than they printed—about the need for a substantial additional investment, but my understanding of their position is that it is not very far from the same figures. That gives me confidence that that is probably correct.

  4. The earlier announcement was an increase from £76 million to £114 million a year by 2003-04. Am I right in thinking that earlier in the year the Government announced that MAFF funding to support capital flood and coastal defence works would increase from £76 million in 2001-01 to £114 million in 2003-04?
  (Mr Morley) That is correct.
  (Sir John Harman) Yes, that is correct. Of course, that is the DEFRA grant-in-aid contribution to a much larger sum which is expenditure on flood defence capital.

  5. Yes, when we get into the institutional arrangements we will then need to get into those additional amounts of money. In fact we might as well do that now. How much is government money, DEFRA money, and how much is coming from the local authorities? What are the relationships between local authority funding and the ability of that to trigger government funding?
  (Mr Morley) It is absolutely crucial, Chairman, because of course we set grant ceilings of expenditure which is a maximum grant aid for regional flood defence committees. Regional flood defence committees then have to raise the levy in order to access the full amount of money. Generally speaking, the vast majority of them do that. We have made a significant increase available in the next financial year, partly funded by the additional £51 million that we announced which is spread over the next three years. So that there have been significant extra capital resources made available to the regional flood defence committees, but of course they do have their ongoing expenses as well which come from the levy, the Environment Agency budget, and there are also the internal drainage boards as well, local authorities, coastal defence operating authorities, all of whom are grant-aided in various ways. That brings about a total spend in the next year of round about £400 million a year.

  6. When Sir John mentioned that that money was for a certain level of standards, was that a one in 100 standard we are now talking about, because you referred to moving to a one in 100 standard, did you not?
  (Mr Morley) Yes, that is right. I would like to see one in 100 as a norm. That was a recommendation by the recent Institution of Civil Engineers report that we commissioned as a department. I certainly think that that is the kind of norm we should be in.

  7. But is the money Sir John mentioned a moment ago money which is relevant to a one in 100 standard?
  (Mr Morley) I think it is a bit more complicated than that, Chairman. Generally speaking, I think that would give you an average standard of round about that, because of course some of these defences will provide protection at a one in 200 or even one in 300 standard, and there are still a lot of existing defences around the country with a minimum standard of perhaps, say, one in 20. So a one in 100, I think, as an average norm, is something we should be aiming for.

  8. When you gave your press conference about six weeks ago now on conclusions of flooding, you talked about the variations in the performance between regional flood defence committees, did you not?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  9. You said that those would have to be addressed. Can you tell us what is happening on that front?
  (Mr Morley) Yes. Following on from the last appearance before the Select Committee, we introduced a range of high-level targets. The high-level targets are a way of standardising performance across the country by setting those targets, in consultation with the Agency, for the regional flood defence committees in terms of what they have to meet, the kind of supervisory role that they have to have, the kind of analysis that needs to be taken. Those targets related to the Agency, local authorities and regional flood defence committees, so that has been done in terms of trying to have a more uniform standard of approach. We also, Chairman, have the funding review which we also commissioned. Again following on from the Select Committee, you did raise this issue of the complications relating to the structures and institutional arrangements. That report is complete. I very much regret, Chairman, that it was not published before this hearing, as it would have been helpful to the Committee, but unfortunately, as you will be aware, it has to go to the devolved administrations and various departments, and there has been a rather longer delay than I would have liked. That report will come out very shortly and will address some of these issues as well. It is for consultation. It is not prescriptive, it is a consultation report, but it covers many of the points that you raised in the last report.

  10. My final question in this initial batch is that I think I am right in saying that about 40 per cent of the flooding occurs because the drains are too small, is that right, and the water backs up into the sewers?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  11. When you were talking about the standard at which you were seeking to apply the flood defence mechanisms, could I ask where drains fit into that?
  (Mr Morley) This is urban drains sewage, you mean, Chairman?

  12. Yes.
  (Mr Morley) The sewage and water companies clearly have responsibilities on that. There are concerns that because of the design of many urban sewage systems there has been backing up and of course sewage pollution in many floods. Again that was identified in the ICE report. That is clearly something that will need to be addressed in terms of the standards that urban drains and sewage systems are built to and whether or not, in actual fact, they are adequate in relation to modern requirements and the kind of changing patterns of weather which we have been seeing. They will be addressed as part of the overall approach.

  13. There was a report yesterday which accused Ofwat of having been so preoccupied with reaching European standards for cleanliness that actually it had taken its eye off the ball of dealing with physical problems like drains being too small. Do you think that is a justified criticism?
  (Mr Morley) I did see that report. I really could not comment on whether it is justified or not. I suspect it is rather a simplistic presentation, in that there are European Directives, there are legal standards that the sewage companies have to meet, and therefore there is a priority on that. There is this issue of whether or not drains are currently up to the kind of standard we want to see. There are of course new standards relating to drains as well. The Urban Waste Water Directive for example, also has implications in raising standards. So I think that the sewage companies do have those responsibilities, and I am not altogether sure that they have been distracted in the way that was suggested in that report.

Paddy Tipping

  14. Could I ask you about urban problems and sewage problems? One of the issues in the Institution's report is the issue of sustainable urban drainage systems, is it not?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  15. In a built-up environment there is clearly going to be more water. One of the ways of tackling it is this relatively new approach. You mentioned water undertakers and sewage undertakers. I understand that they are not at all keen to go down this road, is that right?
  (Mr Morley) I guess they will not be very keen, because there are very considerable cost implications to them, which they will be well aware of. It comes back to the point that a very high proportion of flooding does vary according to areas and events we have had, but a very high proportion has come from drains being completely overwhelmed, drains backing up, highway runoff and urban runoff; it is not just fluvial river systems that are accountable for the kinds of floods that we have seen, although obviously they are accountable for the majority. So there are financial implications to the operating authorities in these new Directives, but they are ones that they are going to have to face up to.

  16. We have a new technology, a new approach that, on the face of it, appears to be more sustainable and, on the face of it, is going to be more costly?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  17. The water companies are saying "No" at the moment. What can we do about it?
  (Mr Morley) I do not think they are actually saying "No". They are certainly expressing concerns about the implications to them, which is not surprising in that respect. Given the kind of problems that we are well aware of—as constituency MPs I am sure we are all well aware of problems in our own constituencies, I certainly am in my own constituency—that whenever we have a heavy downpour, the way the sewers are designed they flow straight into the drains, and it is causing problems now, I really think we have to address these. Actually it is a bit of a wider issue than simply flood management, but there is this link and it does have to be addressed.

Mr Todd

  18. I think it would be helpful, bearing in mind that earlier conversation about precisely how much money had been asked for and precisely how much had been given, if we had a comparative table which set those two things together by comparison, so if we refer back to the original—I think it was the MAFF report on funding from last year—we can set that against the actual expenditure. I say that because I think we are all a little bit confused as to precisely which figures we are comparing against which. There is a comparison with what the Environment Agency has asked for and what they are getting. There is a comparison with the total global sum for flood defences, which includes money that goes to local authorities and other agencies and so forth. Can we see a table which actually presents the picture, as assessed, of what is needed as against what has been given, on a comparative basis, rather than seeking to confuse us—which I am sure is not the intent—by picking different figures from different elements?
  (Mr Morley) I can certainly arrange that for you, Chairman, so that the Committee can see that. What I can arrange for you is to see the current spending programme which DEFRA has, which of course is committed up to 2003. We are just preparing our bid for spending review 2002 which will take us through the next three-year period. In that period, of course, we are guided by some of the independent research that Sir John has been talking about. We can also give you—it is the Halcrow report—what the Halcrow report are saying in relation to their assessments.

  19. Could we have a set of lines which say, "This is what the assessment is that we actually need. This is the actual money that's been spent" and how it is broken down? That would be helpful.
  (Mr Morley) I am sure we can do that. I know what you want. I am sure we can put something together on those lines and also give some indication of where other funding revenue comes from from various sources. If I can make another comment on this last point, what John was also saying is that there are these assessments of what money is required for flood defence in the Agency. You need a programme that can absorb the funds in a stepped programme. Even if we made huge sums available this year, they could not be spent, so there has to be a stepped programme which we agree ourselves.

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