Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000
1. Gentlemen, welcome to the Committee. As you
know we did a report a couple of years ago broadly on flooding;
this time we are catching up rather than finding out where we
are after recent events, although I think all that is pretty self-evident.
When you answer, in your initial answer could you just identify
yourselves for our records. Could I begin by asking if you could
just remind us of what the geometry of flood bureaucracy is, if
you see what I mean. Who is responsible for doing what? Are there
local bodies? Are there local advisory bodies? When you come to
prioritise work, do you decide where the priorities lie? Are you
obliged to consult? Just fill us in a little bit on this organogram
(Dr Mance) Certainly, Chairman. I am
Dr Geoffrey Mance. I am the Director of Water Management in the
Environment Agency and, therefore, have the lead brief on flood
defence. I will try to keep it brief. The Environment Agency is
the national body charged with delivering, if you like, flood
defence on both the coast and the main arterial routes within
the context of Government policy and strategy. We are funded in
two main ways. One is a levy on Council tax at County Council,
Metropolitan Council and Unitary Authority level. The other is
through capital grant from Government in the form of MAFF. The
level of Council Tax levy is determined by flood defence committees,
which are committees of the Agency with an inbuilt statutory majority
of councillors from the contributing authorities. They determine
the level of income to us from the Council Tax in the form of
a levy. They also determine the priority for the use of those
funds, whether on different aspects of revenue expenditure or
capital and the sequence for expenditure within the context, again,
of Government's guidance. There is a priority scoring scheme operated
by MAFF which determines the relative priority of capital schemes,
for instance. Non-arterial main drainage and some coastal defences
are the responsibility of local authorities in urban areas and
in rural areas may be the responsibility of the individual riparian
owners. This is with the exception of low lying flat areas where
there is a system of internal drainage boards which, generally
speaking, have a local elected board of members who level a general
drainage rate on the community they serve in that particular area.
For instance, these are in East Anglia where you have the artificially
drained areas of the country, low lying often with pump drainage
going into the main arterial drainage that we operate. That is
about as brief as I can keep it.
2. That is very helpful. If I could ask you
to illustrate that. In North Yorkshire, I ask you simply because
I know the geography in North Yorkshire, where there has obviously
been some spectacular flooding, but a lot of scattered localised
flooding, now the funding you will have available there then derives
from Government grant and whatever the local body decides it will
raise in rates.
(Dr Mance) Yes.
3. Does the degree to which you can carry out
remedial work depend on how much they are willing to raise? Is
there some indication of what is needed? In Gloucestershire or
the counties bordering the Severn, could work be done much more
rapidly because they are willing to dig deeper into their pockets
than, say, in North Yorkshire?
(Dr Mance) Again, I will try and keep it concise but
it is not that easy given the nature of the system. In your part
of the world in Yorkshire, there is a single regional flood defence
committee which will cover all of old Yorkshire, following the
natural catchment boundaries for the rivers. Clearly, flooding
moves with the flow of the river. Nationally we raise about £220
million per annum through a levy on Council Tax across the country
as a whole and we receive £30 million or thereabouts as grant
from Government. The majority of our income is dependent upon
the levy. For any individual capital scheme, such as in say Skipton
or Ripon or somewhere such as that, then we would normally expect
to receive a grant from Government of around 25 per cent towards
the cost of that capital scheme, the rest having to come from
the levy. The grant rate from Government in the light of the recent
extra funding has been adjusted upwards now for river works.
4. Funding is hypothecated in the area where
it is raised?
(Dr Mance) It is limited to use in the area within
which it is raised in terms of the flood defence committee, yes.
It is routed to the councils through the rate support grant system
and within that there is a clear indication of Government's expectation
of the quantum put in to the Standard Spending Assessments. There
is no requirement or need for the council to actually provide
that level, they can provide extra or less if they so choose.
5. Thank you for that. Now then what is your
present evaluation, Dr Mance? Where are we on flooding? What is
the present situation?
(Dr Mance) On the ground
6. As opposed to where?
(Dr Mance)we seem to have had a continuing
saga. We launched a major flood warning awareness campaign in
mid September, 11 September. We had our first flooding on 14 September
and we seem to have had near continuous flooding somewhere in
the country ever since. The most pronounced bursts started at
the end of October with the storm with all the fallen trees, disruption
to rail and road. Then the flooding started in earnest across
the country with probably the most widespread flooding for at
least 60 years. Certainly in Yorkshire and possibly the top end
of the Severn, we have seen the most severe flooding on record.
Yesterday we were down to 12 flood warnings, and we had no severe
flood warnings in place. We are now back up to 29 flood warnings,
we are watching the weather forecast with some trepidation because
it seems clear if we have much more rain we will have more severe
warnings in place. It seems this event will keep going for some
time to come. The whole country is saturated. Any significant
rainfall, ie. more than about half an inch, is likely to trip
some of our rivers back into floods again.
7. At what point are you able to sit down and
say "Now this is what needs to be done?" How long do
you expect you will spend doing it?
(Dr Mance) Interestingly, the Minister actually requested
us to produce a lessons learnt report on the flooding in late
September. He has since accepted we need a bit more time to complete
that and he has wanted it to extend to cover the recent flooding
across the whole country. We anticipate completing that, unless
we have further substantial flooding, by the end of February.
That will be looking at the lessons learnt across the whole system
as we have experienced it during this flood. We expect that to
be published by the end of February.
8. What is your initial view as to why they
did appear to be so much more severe this year than previously?
(Dr Mance) There was an awful lot of rain. It may
sound simple but at the peak in Yorkshire we had two months rain
in two weeks. We had ten inches of rain in four bursts of less
than 24 hours. That meant York, for instance, did not suffer one
flood, it suffered four. We had water levels at least 12 to 13
feet above normal continuously for 14 days piled against the defences.
I have to say we do not design our defences to be submerged for
that length of time. Generally speaking it is amazing that some
of them actually stood in place throughout, albeit propped up
by the sterling efforts of not just our own staff but the emergency
services, local authorities and the army. It was an exceptional
event with severe rain. I think the characteristic of this autumn
has been the number of occasions we have had one, two, three inches
of rain in 24 hours in various parts of the country. We have seen
Sussex and Kent experience two or three such incidents. Rainfall
of that intensity is unusual or has in the past been unusual in
the UK. One has to say it is consistent with the predictions of
9. Almost as an aside, you are probably not
aware of the arrangements made by Montgomeryshire, which I represent,
but due to some debate with the Secretary of State for Wales the
Environment Agency agreed to an experiment lowering the level
of water in the Clywedog Reservoir in order to prevent it going
over the top at peak rainfall times. It seems to have mitigated
some of the worst flooding, in other words it would have been
even worse if that had not happened. Just to ask, would you be
willing to consider the same kind of arrangements, subject of
course to investigating the experiments in Clywedog, in other
parts of the country?
(Dr Mance) As it happens I was the founding director
for the Midlands Region of the NRANational Rivers Authorityand
put in place the formal agreement we had with Severn Trent Water
for the operation of Clywedog and, indeed, for Vyrnwy. Where we
have reservoirs of suitable type and character, and it is possible
to draw them down in anticipation of flooding, we have agreements
in place, as far as we are able. We are not aware of others elsewhere
where we could do so. Clearly in periods of rain such as we have
had, reservoirs very frequently are becoming full, the rivers
downstream are bank full or, worse, already out of bank and we
are, therefore, very loath to attempt to actually create storage
space again in those reservoirs until the river has actually recovered.
One of our experiences both in 1998 and now has been the extent
to which stories start in the media about flooding having been
caused, as one area has been sacrificed for the benefit of another,
etc, because reservoir storage or flood storage has not been operated
properly. In practice we have had events which have meant that
the storage has been full to the brim and worse. We have had design
storage areas overflowing because they have been overwhelmed by
the scale of water. Telling people we have built a defence arrangement
to protect them against the sort of event they expect once every
100 years on average, and they have then experienced this, they
are loath to accept you have actually had a more extreme event
and the system has worked. It is just we have had storms beyond
the design of the system.
10. I want to talk about the warning codes now.
You introduced a new code on 11 September, three days before the
flooding, leading some of us to be suspicious that you knew something
about the rain that we did not. I wanted to ask how well you felt
the new codes worked?
(Mr Utteridge) I am Bryan Utteridge, Head of Flood
Defence with the Environment Agency. The new codes, as we have
explained in the written evidence, were designed both in consultation
with the people who were going to receive them and our partner
organisations. The codes that we have put in place were ones that
people felt they could understand. From the evidence we have seen
so far we have had no complaints, that I am aware of, that people
did not understand what the codes meant and what to do when they
received them. Not only did we design the codes in that way, we
have an agreement with BBC Weather, and you will have noticed
that the codes are now coming over in weather forecasts. We have
agreements with local radio and with local TV so that in local
areas the codes are explained when we have a flood situation developing.
All in all we feel it is a big improvement on what we had before.
It was a lesson learnt from the Easter 1998 flood when a lot of
people said they did not really understand what the colour codes
11. What criteria do you use to assess the risk
of flooding of an individual river? Obviously the Severn would
be the one in mine and Paul Marsden's area, how are those criteria
(Mr Utteridge) We have developed a new flood warning
strategy, again as part of the actions from the 1998 Easter floods.
In the back of the strategy is an appendices which shows a consistent
way of assessing the flood risk across the whole of England and
Wales. Our operating regions have used that methodology and that
has been applied this time.
12. A few very short questions. Do you happen
to know how many calls were received by the Floodline number over
a given period?
(Mr Utteridge) Yes. If I could try and put that in
context. We budgeted on past use, on past experience, for Floodline
to receive about 100,000 calls a year. During October we received
150,000 calls, during November we have received 350,000 calls.
The assessment that we have done to date suggests that about 60
per cent were received from the hard hit flood areas, 40 per cent
from other areas where there had been rainfall but flooding was
not actually occurring, so people were, on their own accord, starting
to interrogate Floodline to see what rivers were doing in their
locality. We have actually recorded significant traffic from Scotland,
so Scotland are tapping into the system to see what we are doing.
13. Did the system cope okay? Did people get
(Mr Utteridge) Dr Mance has mentioned that we will
be doing a lessons learnt report. As far as we are aware it appears
to have worked well, but with the sort of traffic that we have
received we will be looking at that issue very closely in the
lessons learnt report we are going to do.
14. Lastly, would you mind sharing your findings
with the National Rail Inquiry Line as well? Moving on, what kind
of advice was given by the Floodline? What sorts of things? For
example, was there specialist help for farmers? Without going
through the whole gamut, the kind of nature of inquiry?
(Mr Utteridge) Customers, if they have an easy access
number, can get a dial and listen service which means if they
have the access code they can go straight to their locality and
they will receive a recorded message whether any warnings are
out on rivers in their locality. If they are wanting information
the Floodline operators, if it is basic simple information, have
a question and answer sheet that they can deal with or there is
a facility to put it through to the Agency's local office if they
need further explanation.
15. Finally, roughly how often are those recorded
(Mr Utteridge) The intention is that as a warning
changes for a river the Floodline should be updated as soon as
is practically possible after the warning has changed.
16. The media managed to find plenty of people
who stare down the lens of a camera and up to their armpits in
water saying "We did not get enough of a warning. We were
told one thing and now look at it, it is up to the first floor
in the house". You have given us a pretty good indication
that we are in for more rain so your forward forecasting seems
to be quite good. Do you think that the information you give people
is sufficient to enable them to take proper contingency planning
in such a way that their expectations of what flood prevention
for them means will mean, for example, that water is kept out
of their house because they had enough time to fill up sandbags,
seal things up, or is it a question, do you think, that people
still do not believe some of the warnings that you have given?
How well prepared are people to cope with floods?
(Mr Utteridge) We have carried out two public awareness
campaigns, one last year and one this year, both of £2 million
investment. The first strapline we used was "Floods don't
just happen to other people" and then we have carried out
a further campaign this year. What we have done, last year we
targeted just over 300,000 people with information on what to
do if you have a warning for your locality. With the new flood
warning strategy that I mentioned earlier, and the new flood risk
decision box, we targeted over 800,000 people. It does clearly
spell out in the information that we have sent what the warnings
mean and what the householders should do. What we are doing, also,
we are carrying out surveys, public relations surveys, going into
flood risk areas, questioning people as to their understanding
of the system. What we have found out is that whilst people are
acknowledging they are receiving the information, only about 11
per cent so far have taken any action with regard to doing something
if a flood comes along. I think that shows that we need to continue
with public awareness campaigns because we have a big message
to get across.
(Dr Mance) If I could just add a bit of information
to that. Bryan mentioned we are spending £2 million a year,
that is the funding provided for the Flood Defence Committee System.
To put it in context, Jack Straw announced a campaign to recruit,
I think it was, 7,000 new policemen costing £9 million. We
do not believe we have yet got the message across to the public
and we believe it will require a long campaign to get them to
understand about flood risk and the scale of it. If you live in
a flood risk area you are more likely to experience flooding than
have a home fire. People probably do not perceive it that way
so we are having a long campaign to maintain and get that message
17. Could I take us on to the administrative
arrangements and whether you are satisfied with what you have
at the moment in terms of the decision making action, responses
and so on. You were talking about further streamlining the decision
making process when you get a flood alert. Can you explain that?
(Dr Mance) I am not sure we actually saidCan
I just clarify what we said in relation to flood alerts?
18. The argument would befrom what I
have readthere are too many bodies still trying to take
different parts of the equation forward in terms of when there
is an alert, when the floods actually come.
(Dr Mance) I think in relation to flooding itself
and coping with the emergency response then the roles are reasonably
clear. Certainly this autumn there has been very little indication
at all of there being significant problems in the operation of
major incident plans. One has to say that this summer, because
we have radically overhauled the Agency and the Agency's approach
in relation to flood defence, we have spoken to every local authority,
every police force and every fire brigade in the country to check
that their arrangements are aligned with ours. Therefore, because
of that activity this summer it is not surprising that the arrangements
are sound. I think the lesson for us is that we probably need
to make sure we do that every summer to make sure the alignment
is clear cut. I think the concern we would have goes back to the
Committee's report two years and that is that the arrangements
are somewhat complicated and there is a case for rationalising
them. If you like, the form should follow the substance of how
it should be financed, there is clearly a need for adequate financing
for flood defence in the long term. It is a bit like the rail
system, if you under invest you are going to get failures. We
have had a major flood and we have got by in places by the skin
of our teeth without having substantial failures but the risk
is always there. I think the finance review which is currently
in place, which is also expected to look at the organisational
issues, should actually look at how to ensure the funding is there
reliably and, therefore, what the organisational arrangements
for delivery should be. I think it should be that way round quite
appropriately. The best organisational arrangements under funded
will never deliver the service and protection the public actually
19. On that, is there a problem where you are
trying to ratchet up organisation in places which have not been
used to flooding? I accept that by now, if the arrangements are
working in the classic places that I represent like the River
Severn, then they are going to work but we have floods in my constituency
in places that you would never have predicted because, of course,
the water has to go somewhere and that makes it very difficult
because you have to rely on local information which may not itself
be very good.
(Dr Mance) I think one of the issues here isI
was making a comment to the Environment Select Committee last
week in relation to the development of flood risk areaswe
need to be very careful we do not slip into the context of it
being the wrong type of flooding. If you are flooded with dirty
water in your home it is flooding wherever it has come from. If
one goes back to the start of the major flood at the end of October,
the media latched on to a number of examples of disruption, such
as flooding of the M25, which was nothing to do with the river
system or the arterial drainage, it was all about the drainage
system built in to the M25. Equally, trying to move across country
that morning, because of disruption caused by fallen trees, there
was a lot of disruption caused by local flooding which is minor
water courses, local ditches and local sewer pipes and things
which are blocked and obstructed which give rise to the flooding
of a road junction. It may not be fields across, it may only be
30 feet across, but if it covers the road junction it brings the
system not to a halt but it disrupts it very badly. I think it
is reasonably clear from our experience this time that the maintenance
of the non arterial drainage in parts of the country has not coped
with the flows of water put on it. That comes down again to the
availability of resources to local authorities and possibly, in
places, expertise. Historically local authorities have run sewerage
agencies for water companies, they have run quite a lot of highway
work. A lot of that has migrated away from them now and they do
not have the engineering base to oversee drainage work. There
is an issue there about resourcing both in terms of quantum of
cash but also in terms of expertise.