Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001
MORLEY, MP AND
80. At least because of course some of the 220-something
have not finished the job either.
(Sir John Harman) Yes.
81. It is not a very happy picture.
(Mr Morley) No, and I repeat that we are not complacent
about this. We are chasing it up through the LGA and with the
local authorities concerned. What I would be reluctant to see
is bad authorities setting the standard for all authorities. Many
local authorities are really very good in relation to their responsibilities
of river and coastal defence. We should give them credit for that.
I do not want to suggest that there is a universal failure of
local authorities. I do not think that the best should be tarnished
by the worst. But yes, there is a failure here in terms of hitting
the target and it is something that we intend to address both
at the present in relation to chasing this up, and also in the
short to medium term in relation to the consultation proposals
in the funding review document that will be coming out shortly.
82. In the Environment Agency's "lessons
learned" document you refer to public confusion and information.
I think there is a serious need to pull this side of it together.
We talk planning and insurance and things that can happen before
the flood, but in the immediate aftermath for businesses, for
home owners, the feelings that I get from constituents is that
there is an awful lot of buck passing on it. Are we any nearer
to the "seamless and integrated service"?
(Mr Morley) I think we are. On the policy side may
I say a word and John may say a word in relation to the operational
side? On the policy side, following on from the Bye Report, going
back to 1998, there was a complete overhaul of the response organisations
to flood defence. That really paid off in the 2000 floodings when
generally speaking people knew what their responsibility was,
there was good co-ordination between local authorities, emergency
services, the Agency, government departments. The emergency response
swung into action pretty seamlessly and smoothly, and also the
flood warning system was significantly uprated from 1998 onwards.
That was commended in the recent Institution of Civil Engineers'
report that we have just commissioned. They identified rivers
where they paid particular tribute to the investment that has
been made in flood warning, the way that that went. Again, that
is not to say that we should be complacent. There are issues of
course in relation to contact. The Environment Agency has done
an awful lot of work on their flood line system which is a one-stop
point of contact and that is still developing, and John might
like to say a word abut that. That has worked very well in the
recent severe weather that we have had. I am sure Members will
have seen on the TV weather forecast the phone number that people
can ring for the flood line so that people can find out what the
condition of their river systems is, whether they are in a risk
area, and even on the latter point, there has also been the ongoing
flood awareness programmes, so people who are in flood risk areas
have had leaflets about this, it has been drawn to their attention,
what the warning systems mean, what kind of action to take. We
are also dealing with things like a sandbag strategy which we
have identified as quite significant. It is individual householders'
responsibility in relation to sandbags and people do not see it
that way. We also have to be realistic in that. We would not expect
pensioners to go out and start lugging sandbags around. We understand
that there is a role in relation to providing that kind of support
and we need a strategy for that, we need strategic reserves, we
need to know where these things are. The Agency has sandbag filling
machines. The local authorities need to know how to access those
and distribute them. That is all being done as part of our flood
preparation programme where I think we are in very good shape.
Basically, in relation to future flooding, we do have a good organisation.
It is exercised, it is reviewed and it is kept up to date, so
we can reassure you on that point.
(Sir John Harman) Mr Sawford's question is a very
complex one because I think there is an issue of first of all
what information people need at the time a flood occurs. There
is the issue about what information they can have provided in
advance of that, and then the warning arrangements. Then there
is the issue also, as you have put it, Minister, of people being
passed around like pass the parcel. When something happens, when
the flood water is coming towards the front door, determining
whose responsibility it is to do something about it has been rather
difficult. Each of those questions deserves a separate response.
A great deal has happened, particularly in the investment programme
over the last year, in terms of increasing the quality and volume
of information. Of the number of people brought into the warning
systems over 1.1 million now receive direct warnings, whether
it is telephone or the flood warden or sirens, from the Agency.
There is still more we can do there. We have made a considerable
amount of information available. Flood directories have gone to
very many homes in flood risk areas which try to give you at least
the contact numbers in the various organisations who might be
responsible. I think the Holy Grail here which we would really
like to arrive at, but we could not say that we were anywhere
near yet, is the ability to ring the flood line number and, whether
it is automated or via a person at the other end, have direct
access through that first stop to, in the case of emergency, the
correct authority. The databases do not exist to post people's
enquiries on, so to speak. The information has not been gathered.
Our information systems need to talk directly to local authority
information systems and at present they do not. What we will be
doing next year is to trial the practicalities of that first stop
shop approach with a small number of co-operating local authorities
in particular areas of the country because we do need to crack
that. We are giving a tremendous amount of information out. I
think people, particularly when an emergency occurs, do feel that
there should be what you referred to and we refer to as a seamless
integrated service and an information service that is seamless
and integrated. We are not there yet, but we know that is what
we are aiming for. I will go on to say that the automatic voice
messaging service which is very valuable does need to be turned
into something a little more modern and we are working very hard
at that because the telephone is great but there are plenty of
media that one can use to get through to people these days. We
do need to bring in a new generation of AVM which will help us
support what we are talking about.
83. May I make the observation, Sir John, that
if you have such an emergency and you phone up, and you get a
voice which says, "If water is coming through your bathroom
window press one", by and large I do not think your punter
is going to be terribly impressed. In an emergency people like
a voice at the end who will display some sense of urgency. Nothing
is more infuriating than these automated systems where you spend
a fortune before you get through to anybody, if you ever do.
(Sir John Harman) In the case of ringing in an emergency
when our flood rooms are active, you will get through to a person
in the area dealing with it.
84. We do recognise the amount of work that
has gone in and the amount of information that you have produced.
These things never happen when you expect them and since 1998
I think we have learned a great many lessons. Even so, at the
level of the individual it is still very difficult to find out
whose responsibility a particular water course happens to be.
If you have lived in a property since the early sixties and then
all of a sudden there is a torrent of water running through your
garden, to be told that you have to sue your next door is not
particularly helpful, and then the neighbour has to talk to a
local farmer. At the end of the day, you are relying on somebody's
goodwill to try and address that problem because no-one seems
to want to accept responsibility.
(Mr Morley) This is a slightly different issue in
relation to flood response. This is the responsibility of where
the flood came from. I understand exactly what you are saying,
that the Agency is responsible for main river water courses and
again that is a government strategy, but as to the non-main water
courses, local authorities have permissive powers but they have
no obligation in doing it. Some non-critical water courses are
the responsibility of the landowner so where you have a flood
which has not come from a main river, a critical water course,
then the response is there. We have the responses in place to
help people out, but of course the aftermath and who is responsible
for some of these minor water courses, will it happen again, that
is a more complex issue. Again that is addressed in the funding
review, the issue of non-critical water courses, but there is
always going to be the issue of landowner responsibility which
is a very tricky one.
85. That proved particularly difficult. I have
had no massive amount of flooding. I mainly had problems with
individuals and the volume of letters that passed back and forth
to find out who may be responsible, but then you turn to the issue
of where you might find the funding to prevent this happening
again and then everyone passes the buck around. It is almost impossible
and you end up with individuals funding certain remedial works
themselves or local farmers having to fund it because no-one else
is prepared to do it and there are no central sources for that
funding. You referred to the National Joint Strategic Emergency
Group to bring together everyone involved. Where are we on that?
(Mr Morley) Each local authority is taskedit
is one of the high level targetsto ensure that they have
in place an emergency group for responding to floods. One target
is for them to have exercises to make sure that that works as
well. There is also currently a Cabinet Office review in relation
to the wider issue of emergency planning of which flood preparedness
is one aspect. But of course that will fit into that review as
well. I very much hope that that will strengthen the current situation
which worked generally pretty well when it was called upon in
the floods last year.
86. All of this is extremely important as far
as individuals are concerned of course and I think we would say
good progress is being made and the Committee feels that. But
of course at a different level it is the question of accountability
for the decisions that are made about preventing flooding or reducing
the risk, and the fact that that accountability is fractured between
a number of agencies, some of which are more accountable than
others. I was interested to hear Sir John say that the Environment
Agency would want to reserve the elected accountability of local
authorities and I agree with that absolutely. Nor would I want
to see one great pinnacle of decision making to do this subsuming,
or indeed replacing, of all the properly elected accountable bodies
that there already are. However, something clearly needs to be
done even given issues that have been raised this morning. For
example, one of you said that some of the drainage boards say
they have not got the resources to inspect their own flood defences.
(Mr Morley) Local authorities.
87. No, it was drainage boards.
(Sir John Harman) There are some drainage boards.
88. In addition to local authorities. Drainage
boards are not over-resourced bodies. This surely must be a matter
of concern. I cannot imagine that they are being awkward. They
are not in a sense homogeneous enough to be awkward. If there
really is a problem with a lack of resources for the proper accountable
bodies even to inspect the efficacy of what they are doing, do
you not think that matters, and who is looking at the overall
funding for the overall problem?
(Mr Morley) It is a strategic issue. We are looking
at the overall funding issue. The funding review document does
have some suggestions on streamlining the funding into virtually
one funding stream as a matter of fact. What the proposal is,
Chairman, in the document I will give you very shortly is that
there is one strategic regional flood defence body which gets
core funding. It does the assessment of what it needs for its
area based on river catchments. It assesses what it needs, makes
some bids to central government, gets core funding and then contracts
for the delivery in the area, so you are streamlining the funding
and you are also streamlining the decision process. The suggestion
is that they have the powers for a precept which is a top-up.
They will get the core funding but if they want some localised
issues which the core funding does not cover they can precept
to top up if they so choose. These are our suggestions and they
are out for consultation.
89. If they have a precepting power are they
(Mr Morley) Yes. The proposal is that local authorities
will still have the places
90. This will be a consortium then?
(Mr Morley) Yes, that is right, and it is all about
accountability and I do support John on this in that I think local
democratic accountability in the provision of local flood defence
is very important. I would not want to see it all brought to the
centre. I think that that local involvement and accountability
is an important part of it. That also applies to the drainage
boards. The drainage boards have the power to precept now. They
really ought to have the funding which would allow them to do
asset inspection and management as part of their function. There
are an awful lot of drainage boards and there may be an argument
for bringing more of them into consortiums as many have already
done. Indeed, in Norfolk there is a very good consortium and it
is a very efficient operation. That is a very good model that
we would like to encourage in relation to drainage boards.
91. What is important is that with accountability
must go transparency and it is one thing for there to be consortia
of various kinds. It is another for the public to know where the
buck rests if there are these consortia because it is all too
easy for the buck to be passed round the individual components
of the consortium.
(Mr Morley) It is true. The main problem of buck passing
is that you are back to the-non-critical water courses. That is
where you get the main problem about who is responsible for that
because it clearly is not the Environment Agency. It is very clear
at the moment and it is not the Environment Agency's responsibility,
the non-critical water courses. The IDBs have some responsibility
for drains but some water courses of course have no clear ownership
in relation to responsibility. That is a problem; I do accept
that. We have identified that problem and there are suggestions
to address it in the forthcoming review.
92. The idea of a more strategic role for drainage
boards and a wider area must come because I think they are in
my part of the world very worried people but they are always reactive
and that may be counter productive. The other issue, to go back
to the point that Phil Sawford was making, is that the powers
that they have to be able to do something to prevent a possible
flooding problem in the future. I would urge both of you, and
we would welcome a rapid response, to go back and look at the
powers where you have clearly got a problem that is going to occur
in the future because of historical features and to intervene
and to get the different householders or whatever together to
make sure that there is agreement on what that action is going
(Mr Morley) I would certainly agree with that, Chairman.
Flood and coastal defence is a long term game. It is a long term
investment and it has to be a long term strategy. I come back
to the development of such things as whole catchment planning
where you can address these kinds of issues in the long term.
That must be the strategy that we have to pursue.
93. The previous Agriculture Committee as it
was called until recently in our 1998 report recommended a policy
of managed retreat. In fact, we recommended it so well that the
Daily Express, which I noticed used to carry news even
if they got it wrong, its headline on the front page was Lunatics
Advocate Sinking Britain or something. The Government at that
time said it did not see the need.
(Mr Morley) To sink Britain? No. We still do not see
94. They did not see the need for a managed
retreat. The Institution of Civil Engineers has since come out
and said that that is a sensible strategy, so let me ask you whether
you now accept that a system of managed retreat from land areas
prone to flooding and coastal erosion should be the basis of policy.
(Mr Morley) To be fair, Chairman, we never said we
did not accept it. We always said that managed retreat was an
option alongside a range of options that we have in relation to
flood and coastal defence. Indeed, as I said earlier on, we do
recognise as a department, and in fact the creation of DEFRA has
emphasised the need to put sustainability at the heart of all
our policies, that if we are going to have strategies to reduce
the risk of flooding and coastal risk then we should whenever
possible base it on sustainable engineering and sustainable development.
In some casesnot allthat managed retreat is most
certainly an option. When I say that of course, in the article
you were referring to the inference was that that was going to
be the new policy, just give up and let the sea take everything.
That is not going to be the case. We will always engineer defences
against the sea where there is a case to do so, but in some other
cases the most practical option and the most beneficial option
will be to re-align defences and to use more natural defences
as part of wave energy absorption, shingles, sand, salt marsh.
These are all very effective ways of defending inland assets and
also give you an environmental gain, so I am quite keen on this
optionwhere it is appropriate to do it.
95. It will not be the major policy but it will
be an aspect of policy?
(Mr Morley) Absolutely. As I was outlining, we already
have a number of small projects where we are starting the process
of managed retreat, but these are small scale at the present time.
(Sir John Harman) It is very much an option and the
key area where this is a concern is the East of England, so I
took the precaution of bringing alongand you could put
this round the Committee if you wisha map showing the options
that the Agency sees as available round each part of the coast
of the East of England.
96. Does that include the Humber?
(Sir John Harman) No, it does not. I am going from
the Wash down to Basildon.
(Mr Morley) The Humber is not on the map, I am a bit
(Sir John Harman) The areas of coastline coloured
in different colours show that there are many different options
and the green areas, as you will see when it comes round, are
where we have identified managed retreat as probably the option.
You will see that it is significant but not hugely extensive,
put it that way.
97. I am glad to hear that because we argued
quite effectively for that. You yourself said, Minister, you would
like to see a "one in a hundred years" standard for
flood defences, but the Association of British Insurers has argued
for a one flood in two hundred years standard. What standard should
be set below which consideration should be given to abandoning
properties and areas subject to flooding or coastal erosion?
(Mr Morley) Abandoning properties is quite extreme
really and you would really have to have some very good reasons
for doing that. In the ICE Report they said in some cases the
option would be to abandon some properties. It is not the kind
of general policy we would like to follow. I was saying before
that one in a hundred is a reasonable indicative standard to aim
for but because the nature of flood and coastal defence varies
so much that it is not very meaningful in some cases to have one
particular standard, but generally speaking as an indicative target
that is not on unreasonable one. I do not know the reasoning for
the ABI one in two hundred. I do not think they have quantified
how they have come to that conclusion while the ICE Report has
gone through it in much more detail.
98. Is there any indication of what the differences
mean in terms of properties that might be abandoned to flooding?
What would be the number in your one in a hundred category?
(Mr Morley) I am not working on the assumption of
abandoning any properties to flooding, apart from there are some
isolated properties on the coast that are subject to on-going
natural coastal erosion. There is nothing new about that.
99. That is all?
(Mr Morley) That is all I am aware of at the present