Examination of Witness (Questions 80 -
TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000
80. Whilst we are on that table, I see in the
financial year 1996-97, expenditure reached over £100 million,
subsequently over the next three years it declined and then went
back up. Can you give us any feel for the factors which led to
somebody thinking that £100 million was right in 1996 and
then in subsequent years lower sums were okay?
(Mr Morley) I am not quite sure which chart you are
81. Table 1 of document L3, the Progress Report
on the Implementation of Recommendations in the Sixth Report.
(Mr Morley) I suspect this is due to schemes which
had been approved in that year by the regional flood defence committees.
Of course, if you have a number of big schemes going through in
any one year then there will be a variation in relation to MAFF
grants and other expenditure. You will notice the overall expenditure
has been increasing year on year. I think that would explain the
anomaly but if I am wrong on that, I would be only too pleased
to clarify it for the Committee.
82. In the Spending Review, the data that was
given, presumably by MAFF, to the Treasury convinced the Treasury
at the time that £34 million was right, what suddenly changed
to make you suddenly say, "£51 million on top of that"?
I want to get a feel as to how the decision-making process works,
because things like extreme conditions, climate changeyou
yourself, Minister, reminded us, quite rightly, of Northamptonare
not unknown, all the climate people tell us that more extreme
weather is likely to come, all of that would be fed into the decision-making
process which resulted in the £34 million, yet one serious
flooding incident which I presume could have been predicted magically
elicits another £51 million. Tell us about the decision-making
(Mr Morley) A flood of the kind we have just experienced
in this country really could not have been predicted. Indeed we
had the Northampton floods, we had some previous floods, we have
had a series of floods in the last three years which are out-of-pattern
in relation to the kind of timescale you would expect for floods
of that kind. Within that period, MAFF has been thinking of the
implications of long-term expenditure, has been giving thought
to the possibility that we may be entering into a period of climatic
change where we are going to see more of this kind of weather.
83. What advice did you get after Northampton
which was in the general area for discussion of climate change?
Did somebody say to you, "Minister, this is such a long-odds
event it will not occur again" and yet two years later we
have extreme flooding?
(Mr Morley) It was not quite like that. The assessment
of flooding and flood defence is based on predicted events of
1:50 years, 1:100 years, 1:200 years going up to 1:1,000 years,
which is the predicted breach of the London tidal barrier, for
example, so there is a level of prediction in relation to the
events which is within MAFF's models and within the kind of models
of the institutes which advise the Ministry. The fact is we may
well be seeing situations where those assessments which have been
made on 1:100, 1:50, may be wrong, it may be those assessments
are now 1:30 and 1:150 instead of 1:50 and 1:200. We cannot rule
that out. The reality is that we do not know for certain and in
fact we are committing money for research and development into
climate changeabout £11 million a yearto try
and understand the link between such things as global warming,
potential climate change and potential implications through to
flooding. The spend has been a rising spend but of course in the
meantime we have had reports, such as the one we have been referring
to, and what we have seen is this extreme of flooding, the worst
since 1947, in some cases the worst for 400 years, the wettest
autumn for 230 years. With all those factors it would be irresponsible
if we did not take that into account and the additional money
is to reflect that and the fact we are going to have to accept
we are going to make more commitments to flood and coastal defence.
So that is what influenced the extra £51 million.
84. Can I look at the relationship between what
is obviously scheme driven, which is large capital sums of money,
and planned maintenance, inasmuch as there is a danger, with the
best of respect to the Shrewsburys of this world, that if you
skew it all in terms of the big schemes that even less is available
to spend on planned maintenance. Very often that planned maintenance
is the only defence those communities, because of the numbers
of houses or because of the relative isolation, are ever going
to have and there is a danger they will be flooded more regularly
because of the backwash and impact of the larger schemes. What
is your opinion on that?
(Mr Morley) There has to be planned maintenance and
the funding that we provide from MAFF is very much linked to capital
grants, but the Environment Agency budget of course is both capital
and planned maintenance. The Environment Agency themselves will
draw up their programme in relation to what they think is important
for planned maintenance and that does involve such things as river
bank maintenance, perhaps an element of dredging, of course they
have to maintain screens and there is a fair bit of work they
have to do, both in relation to their core functions and also
in relation to contracting as well, but it is the Agency which
puts that scheme together.
85. Can I deal with one thing on the back of
that which has been put to me on a number of occasions, if we
dredged our rivers more regularly that would deal with the problem
(Mr Morley) If only!
86. Can you put it on the record, once and for
all, that is not the case?
(Mr Morley) Yes. Let me make this very clear. It is
true, wherever you go and there has been a flood, people say,
"If the river had been dredged it would have solved the problem",
it would not. In some cases the difference dredging would make
would be very marginal. I am not saying it makes no difference
in some cases, but in other cases, big water courses tend to be
self-cleaning, they tend to clean themselves out, and actually
a flood of the kind we have experienced tends to really clean
them out, I can assure you. Where you have tidal rivers, dredging
does not make the slightest bit of difference because the volume
is filled up by the tides and the level is determined by the tides.
In some cases, if you dredge too deep, the banks will fall in,
and that will not do anyone any good.
87. Why are you so opposed to institutional
change? We recommended some in our report and you turned it down,
then the Environment Agency and others recommended a kind of national
joint strategic flood group and you have turned that down too.
(Mr Morley) Yes, that is right. We did not think a
national strategic flood group would do a lot of good in relation
to the kind of services provided at the present time with the
kind of structures at the present time. I do not want you to think,
Chairman, that we are absolutely, implacably opposed to any kind
of institutional change. In this review which is coming forward
from the Environment Agency, if the Agency themselves think there
is a role for some kind of joint flood group of that kind, we
are prepared to consider that. We thought very carefully about
the recommendations your own Committee made in relation to bodies
such as Drainage Boards, for example, and also streamlining the
regional flood defence committees which we accept there could
well be a case for in terms of reducing the number of local flood
defence committees and perhaps breaking up some of the big regions
into two or three regional flood defence committees, for example.
We are certainly willing to consider that but that would actually
require primary legislation, you would have to attach that to
a Water Bill that was going through Parliament. We have not closed
our minds to any kind of institutional change. I was not enthusiastic
about the recommendations from the Committee last time because,
of course, they were removing some element of local accountability
and local involvement through the drainage boards and through
local flood defence committees which I did think, and I still
think, was important. I do think that there is a role for local
involvement in terms of deciding priorities and deciding local
expenditure on flood and coastal defence. I would be reluctant
to move away from an element of local accountability and democracy
but we are prepared to consider the case for institutional change
if a strong case is made.
88. It must be messy with so many agencies involved.
(Mr Morley) It tends to work and it tends to deliver.
I think also this present situation has shown that the defences
that have been put in place have held, they operated to their
design standard and in many cases beyond their design standard,
and the areas of need have been identified in relation to the
structures which are in place. I would not like to say that there
were huge failings in the present institutional system.
89. Are we to take it from paragraph 19 of your
memorandum that the proposed Water Bill would allow a move to
a single tier of regional flood defence committees?
(Mr Morley) That is right.
90. Would you be in favour of that?
(Mr Morley) Yes, I would not rule that out. I think
there is a case for streamlining the system in that way with the
proviso, as I say, that some regional flood defence committees,
indeed the one that covers our own area, Chairman, are very large.
I think if you want to have the connection with local people and
accountability you probably have to divide some of the regional
ones up, a very big one maybe into three regional flood defence
committees, and at the moment they are restricted to ten by statute,
which is why you would need legislation to change it.
91. Would you contemplate reviewing the balance
of interests in the committees for flood and water management,
flood defence committees, regional flood defence committees, internal
drainage boards and representation on them?
(Mr Morley) Yes. As I say, I have an open mind in
relation to how we address this. We have reviewed it once and
we did consult widely on it. As you know, there was a lot of response
to your Committee's report, which was generally well received,
but of course there were bodies, like the Association of Drainage
Authorities, who had a difference of opinion as you will remember.
Chairman: That is a surprise.
92. In the evidence we heard from the Environment
Agency they drew out the implications of their lack of influence
over the non-arterial river courses, the drainage from fields
and so on, which often had very substantial impacts on the effectiveness
of flood defence in other parts of a mechanism defending a community,
and their weakness in gaining the co-operation of other people
who may be engaged, for example the local authorities who failed
to co-operate with them in inspecting flood defences. Does that
concern you, that this typically English ramshackle "well,
it is a bit confusing but somehow we muddle through" approach,
perhaps just is not suitable for this sort of set-up now?
(Mr Morley) It is a concern that non main river courses
can be responsible for localised flooding, that is certainly very
true. In the High Level Targets we have set, one of them is an
audit of all the various river defences both private and Environment
Agency and local authority. We have asked the Agency to do that
audit and to put them on to a database which will give us a clearer
idea of what potentially needs to be done in relation to doing
93. That audit will require the co-operation
of a number of other bodies, how are we going to achieve that?
(Mr Morley) I am not aware that there has been any
problem in relation to co-operation from other bodies. I think
the problem comes when it is determined who is to pay for some
of these defences, particularly when they are riparian owned.
94. We did hear that local authorities were
not always willing to even participate in the process of inspection
of some of these defences.
(Mr Morley) It is an ongoing process. All I can say
is that problem has not been brought to my attention and if it
was brought to my attention I would certainly take steps to do
something about that.
95. That is in the Environment Agency evidence
that we have seen, 82 local authorities either failed to reply
or blank refused to take part in this inspection process. That
does not bode well for this process of getting this audit straight.
(Mr Morley) It is certainly true that if local authorities
are not co-operating on this it does not help in relation to the
audit but that co-operation is something which is essential and
that is an issue which I will address with the Environment Agency
and, if necessary, I will take up directly with the Local Government
96. The targets that you have set, because we
are beginning to touch on those, how are we going to make sure
that they are actually implemented within this rather confusing
mechanism that we have and which the Committee criticised but
you have defended?
(Mr Morley) There are dates set to actually complete
these targets and we would expect the Environment Agency to do
that. It is true, as you say, that obviously some of them are
easier to achieve than others but any way that we can help in
relation to Central Government in terms of making progress on
that then we are only too pleased to do that.
97. What consideration has been given to the
inclusion of a target for catchment-level flood management strategies
and flood defence planning, as recommended by English Nature?
(Mr Morley) These are the water level management plans
(Mr Morley) There is a target for completion on water
level management plans. We expect them to be brought forward and
there is a date set for that.
99. From this questioning, I have to be blunt
really, you have given the impression that, firstly, you are not
entirely clear about the co-operative framework in which the Environment
Agency is operating at the moment, which is that it seems to be
struggling from the evidence we have, and also that while you
are not averse to institutional change, you certainly do not want
to lead with it. My difficulty is that the targets that you appear
to be setting will be achieved by the goodwill, by the sound of
things, of a number of disparate agencies rather than by the collective
will of Government. Is that right and is that reassuring?
(Mr Morley) It is certainly true that there are a
number of agencies involved in relation to the delivery of flood
and coastal defence. I have made it clear that we have not closed
our minds towards institutional reform or to try to make things
more streamlined. What you seem to be arguing for is a much more