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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 112)



Paddy Tipping

  100. Do you recognise there is a problem that if you build hard defences around areas that are a priority to defend that that can have the effect of encouraging either flooding or erosion in other areas where that would not take place had the strategic decision not been taken to build hard defences? I think that does raise the issue then of compensation for those landowners or properties affected and consultation about how the whole process is managed around those properties because generally the assumption is if the property erodes that is the landowner's problem but if government is taking decisions in terms of hard defences around certain areas that lead to the erosion of land further down the coast, then obviously there is an argument that there is some national responsibility to those landowners that are affected?
  (Mr Morley) You are absolutely right, Chairman. Any engineered scheme, in fact any scheme at all that is approved for grant aid by the Department must go through an assessment of, first of all, whether it is technically right, secondly, whether it is cost effective and, thirdly, its environmental impact, and part of that assessment is whether or not if the scheme goes ahead it will impact on other communities or indeed the dynamics of the waterways of the coast. The Agency engineers are, of course, very well aware of this, as indeed are our own engineers from DEFRA so no scheme is approved until that assessment has been made.
  (Sir John Harman) It is fair to say that quite often people feel there has been an impact and it is quite hard to evidence that, things pass into folklore. We were talking earlier about the Humber, the whole of the decision-making around the Humber is taken in the context of something called the Humber Shoreline Management Plan. The whole estuary is such a dynamic system you really do have to think about it altogether and you cannot take individual flood defence decisions in that particular location without a planning system.
  (Mr Morley) It is a very good planning system.

Diana Organ

  101. I want to come on to flood risk because that is what it is all about. Are you going to do anything or are you not, so you have got to work out does it need it or does it not, is it worth doing it? The Institution of Civil of Engineers concludes that current methods of estimating and reducing flood risk suffer from "a serious inadequacy in representing the dynamic effects of land use changes, catchment processes and climatic variability." Do you think you do suffer from serious deficiencies? Are you inadequate in what you can do?
  (Mr Morley) I sometimes feel I am! But I think what they are talking about is a fairly narrow aspect in relation to their comments there and that deals with the estimation of the developments on flood plains and the impact that they can have. I would accept that we do need more sophisticated computer modelling and we do need to do a lot more work on that, but overall it should not be taken as a generalised criticism of the approach. It is to do with specific issues of estimating the effects of possible future changes in land use, catchment processes such as rainfall infiltration, and also climate change and trying to quantify the impacts of climate change. That is what they are talking about. We accept that and we are doing a lot of work and putting a lot of investment into research and development on how we can address those issues.

  102. I have got here a News Release of September 2001 "Elliot Morley announces an update of the assessment of national flood and erosion risks". You have talked about computer modelling there. Are you going to put in extra computer modelling so they have the tools to do the job properly?
  (Mr Morley) We have a departmental R&D budget and I can send the Committee details of what some of the studies are. For example, on climate change, we are supporting the Hadley Centre for forecasting with £5 million or £6 million, just from memory, and of course we do support various studies in relation to coastal dynamics and river systems so that is an on-going process but I can give you the details of what we spend it on.
  (Sir John Harman) Can I add to the Minister's answer on that. Going back to your first question, I accept what the Institution said but not how it was reported. The Institution said there was a serious inadequacy in the models that we use in the fact that they are static rather than dynamic models. There is not a serious inadequacy in the flood risk assessment that those models give and I think it is quite important not to undermine confidence in what we know about flood risks in catchments. Yes we can make it better. The fact we are using static models based in many cases on data collected in the early 1990s means that of course those models need updating. It is a bit like the Census and, indeed, we are doing that at the moment. Better than that would be to have a model that could make predictions about what will happen in terms of flood risk if a particular development takes place in a catchment, if one makes assumptions about increased rainfall or patterns of rainfall, if one makes assumptions about the hydro-geology of the area or you want to change those assumptions. So dynamic models will be an improvement, I agree very strongly with the Institution on that. But I do not think you should have any lack of confidence in the utility of the models we are presently operating. They do give pretty good results. They could be better but they are not inadequate.
  (Mr Morley) The Institution was also very supportive of the recent flood risk handbook produced in 1999 with a lot of ICE input, as a matter of fact. The Committee might also be interested in an example of what we are talking about in that there is a joint R&D project between DEFRA and the Agency for a computer-based modelling and decision support framework on the MDS model. This is just being developed. The first edition is currently being tested and it will be made available for those carrying out the first round of the catchment flood management plans at the beginning of 2002, so we are making good progress on this.

  103. All of this is very important because people do not get the flood defences that they want or need until the risk assessment has been fully carried out. As Sir John has said, lots of places, including the River Severn, are relying on the early static models that were done in the 1990s and I know that in the Severn there has been a lot of talk about completely re-modelling and updating that work because so many changes have gone on and we know so much more and we know so much less. Has the remodelling for the Severn been completed?
  (Mr Morley) The Severn is one of the river systems where we are financing whole catchment plan studies and that is under way at the present time.

  104. It is under way, it is not finished?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  105. The second thing I want to go onto is the same Institution of Civil Engineers said that "the appropriate technical skills are lacking within the industry, from drainage engineers in local authorities, to river engineers in the Environment Agency, and skilled hydraulic specialists in universities." In fact, there is a skill shortage all around according to them. To what extent are you suffering from this skills shortage and what are you doing about it so you get the necessary people in with the necessary technical knowledge and skills so that we can do the appropriate work?
  (Mr Morley) This is a national problem, Chairman, in that there has been a shortage of people entering university to study civil engineering. Engineering generally has never had the image that some other professions have had in terms of attracting students, which is surprising because it is a very fulfilling profession and it is a key role for people to have. I know that the Institution of Civil Engineers are very keen to encourage more people to go into training. I know that the Agency has some training courses itself in terms of flood defences and flood engineers, and we recently have been talking from DEFRA to our colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment about what we can do to encourage people to go into skill shortage areas. So we do recognise that there is a need to encourage the number of people going through and qualifying as engineers.

  106. For instance, how many river engineers does the Environment Agency employ?
  (Sir John Harman) I would have to go away and look that one up. Is there a shortage? Yes, there is. Has it prevented us adequately delivering our programme? No, it has not because we have done a great deal of internal training. It has been necessary to do that training. If we are looking (and I hope we are looking) at a much increased programme in flood defences, then the issue of the skills available in the industry will have to be addressed. There is a shortage and we are just about managing at our present levels.

  107. Just about managing?
  (Sir John Harman) Just about managing.


  108. Gentlemen, we have had quite a wide-ranging discussion this morning. You were going to give us some figures in writing about the investment levels correlated to the risks which they are intended to address because obviously there is a correlation there. I would personally find it helpful to have an organogram of who does what in this business. If it rains like it did last year again this year then I can find out who I am supposed to get hold of. Who does sewers, who does drains, who does little rivers, who does big rivers, who does land above X feet, who does land below X feet. I still think that is information which people do find very confusing.
  (Mr Morley) We can certainly provide that for you, Chairman. Generally speaking, if there is some kind of crisis issue you will find my name linked with it somewhere!

  109. One valedictory question, if we were to get a repeat of the winter that we had a year ago, are you confident that we are much better prepared now, or are the time lines in the investment such that you would be able to make that predication for next year or the year after?
  (Mr Morley) I am confident that we are well prepared. I am not complacent about this. I think there is a lot that we need to do, and John touched upon some of the development work that the Agency is doing, particularly on its Flood Line network, which I think has great potential in terms of helping individuals and I am very keen to see that progress. In terms of the emergency response that we would need in any flood situation, I am very confident that we have a good and well-tried and well-prepared response structure available for people. I am also confident that we are "making good progress", it is a phrase that Mrs Shephard used, in terms of reducing risk. We can never take away completely the risk of flooding in this country. We cannot guarantee that flooding will not happen and that was the theme of the ICE Report. In fact, the very title of the ICE report was Learning to Live with Rivers, and was about managing risks, managing rivers and managing these issues, but our job is to reduce risk to the people of this country, and I believe we have a programme in place that is delivering in that but it is a long-term programme and, of course, because river systems are dynamic, the weather system appears to be changing, we have to take into account the implications of such things as global warming, and we must respond to that in a dynamic way as well. You cannot do that overnight. I believe we have the process in place which is improving service delivery, which is reducing risk, and we are also open-minded about future changes, taking into account some of the recommendations, for example, from your last Committee Report. We are in the process of trying to think through that and, as I say, you will see that the report on the funding review does address many of the suggestions that came forward from this Committee in the last report and that will go out to consultation very soon.

Mr Drew

  110. I have a very sneaky question because I was meant to be here and unfortunately I had to slip away. We are going on to look at alternatives to traditional use of farmland, and there is the idea of tendering in flood land that is being talked about?
  (Mr Morley) Yes.

  111. I am just very interested in the model of the National Forest and that tendering process. Is that applicable to farm land that could be used as flood prevention? Is that a real possibility?
  (Mr Morley) Not at this stage but all options are open as far as I am concerned. The idea of flood storage catchment and using farm land for that is a very interesting one, and it is certainly one that we are giving very serious thought to in river plains and river catchment areas. The reason why we are thinking about this is that if we can expand winter catchment areas on flood plains then you can reduce peaks and if you reduce the peaks going down the river you protect a lot of small communities who may not qualify at the present time for expensive defences, and of course you are taking pressure off existing defences. We are very seriously considering this approach but it needs much more development.


  112. It has been a great relief to have had a session of two hours in which the phrases "cross-cutting", "joined up" or "rolling out" have not occurred.

  (Mr Morley) We can soon rectify that!

  Chairman: We are grateful that we have communicated with each other in something resembling English and we hope we continue to do so. Thank you very much indeed.

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