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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  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.

Phil Sawford

  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.

Phil Sawford

  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 tasked—it is one of the high level targets—to 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.

Mrs Shephard

  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 elected?
  (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.

Mr Drew

  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 to be.
  (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.

Mr Mitchell

  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 the need.

  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 cases—not all—that 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 option—where 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 along—and you could put this round the Committee if you wish—a 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 worried!
  (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 time.

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