Examination of witnesses (Questions 84
WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000
84. Minister, I do apologise to you, we have
had a very interesting session with the Environment Agency and
I hope you will forgive us because we were obtaining very useful
information. Can I ask you firstly to identify yourself and do
you want to make any general remarks?
(Mr Raynsford) Thank you very much, Chairman.
I entirely appreciate this is a very important subject and the
fact there has been a slight over-run is no problem at all from
our point of view. I am Nick Raynsford, Minister for Planning
and Housing, and I am accompanied by Jeff Jacobs, who oversees
the planning directorate in the Department and Lester Hicks, an
official within that directorate, with particular responsibility
for the matters we are discussing this morning. I would be very
happy to make a brief introductory statement if that is acceptable
to the Committee.
85. Of course.
(Mr Raynsford) Madam Chairman, I welcome the opportunity
to appear before the Committee today and I should start by extending
the Government's sympathy to all those whose homes and businesses
have been damaged by the recent floods. I should also like to
pay tribute to all thosein local authorities, the emergency
services, the armed forces, the health service, voluntary organisations,
a wide range of contractors and the general publicwho responded
so well to the emergency. It is work which in many cases is still
going on and will continue for some time. We came to the conclusion
that there was a need for a new PPG for planning guidance on flooding
following the Easter floods of 1998 and the subsequent reports
of the Agriculture Select Committee and the Independent Review
Committee chaired by Peter Bye. We held extensive working discussions
with officials in MAFF and the Environment Agency and we released,
as I think you all know, our consultation draft for PPG 25 in
April. We were coming to the end of the evaluation of that consultation
earlier this autumn with a view to issuing a revised final version
next month when the serious floods occurred, and in the light
of those floods we decided to look again at what the final version
should say, and obviously we want to take account of any views
expressed by this Committee. This will have some implications
for timing. I hope it will be clear from what I am going to say
that in a number of respects we propose to sharpen and toughen
the messages set out in the draft PPG 25, so we may need to consult
on the revised draft. All of this means we probably will not be
able to finalise PPG 25 until early next year but we do want to
get the new guidance in place as soon as possible. Some of the
evidence we have seen would suggest a need for further analysis
and long-term research and development, and there is always scope
for such work, but I do believe PPG 25, revised as we proposed
and in the light of any further remarks from this Committee, will
be a major clarification and strengthening of the policy on development
in flood risk areas, and that we should get ahead without undue
further delay. I have talked about how we intend to sharpen up
our message and it might be helpful for the Committee if I briefly
outlined the key areas. Firstly, we are going to make it absolutely
clear there should not be inappropriate development in flood plains.
Secondly, we are considering seriously whether to restate the
precautionary approach which we set out in the draft as a formal
sequential test working from low to high risk areas. Thirdly,
we would expect to indicate that building in the functional flood
plains used to hold water in times of flood should be avoided
except in wholly exceptional circumstances, such as public infrastructure
or water-related development such as boathouses. Fourthly, while
we think there is still plenty of opportunity to make good use
of previously developed land, we will make clear the need for
developers to demonstrate they can provide adequate flood defences,
avoiding adding to flood risk elsewhere and that they are avoiding
the most exposed and risky areas altogether. We shall also be
reminding authorities of the opportunities to make best use of
land through appropriate higher densities and by sensible flood-resistant
designs, and we will stress the importance of designing for flooding
for all those involved in the development process. We are already
doing quite a lot of work through the Building Regulations on
this matter, particularly on matters such as sustainable drainage
and stability. We will extend the existing references to preparing
development plans which take account of flood defence issues on
a catchment-wide basis in full consultation with the Environment
Agency and the emergency services, and we will ask authorities
to keep their planning policies and local planning guidance up
to date as the Environment Agency revises its flood risk assessments
at intervals and as better information becomes available on climate
change. I hope that has given the Committee a feel for how we
are proceeding at the moment.
86. I think that is very helpful, although I
would begin by asking you whether this is what you are actually
contemplating doing or whether you intend to do it?
(Mr Raynsford) This is what we are intending to do
but, as I have said, we do still need to take account of the further
evidence emerging from the recent floods and obviously we will
not complete our conclusions until we have had an opportunity
to consider any report that your Committee decides to publish
on this matter.
87. But your indication would be that you do
not intend to dilute your views that these changes should be tougher,
that you do not intend to be more tolerant of existing circumstances,
you are more likely to put on tougher curbs?
(Mr Raynsford) As I have already indicated, our proposed
changes will be significantly toughening-up what was in the draft
and I certainly do not see any case for dilution.
88. Very good. Do local planning authorities
really take flood risk seriously enough?
(Mr Raynsford) We hope that they do, and we believe
the experience of the recent floods will have added further incentive
for those who perhaps have not given it sufficient attention in
89. Why is it there has been a three-fold increase
in development in these risk areas in the last five years?
(Mr Raynsford) I think there may be some question
about the figures concerned because the Environment Agency
90. Let us say 2- and be generous.
(Mr Raynsford) These refer to applications.
(Mr Raynsford) We have not seen those figures and
we have not had an opportunity to analyse them but there is a
significant difference between applications and approvals.
92. Do you monitor this very carefully?
(Mr Raynsford) We are not satisfied with the existing
information. As you will know, we set up the National Landuse
Database and other mechanisms in order to keep a closer watch
on what information is available.
93. Do you now think you have got that information?
(Mr Raynsford) We have not yet got sufficient information
and we are doing further work on it, and this is a particular
aim where we will want to talk closely to the Environment Agency
to identify exactly what the problem is.
94. What sort of timescale are we talking about
for these consultations with the Environment Agency, because it
would appear there is some urgency about your need to have this
accurate information, would you not think?
(Mr Raynsford) We agree entirely and I have to say
we have seen figures in the Environment Agency's submission to
your Committee and we have been seeking clarification on a number
of points raised by them. For example, the 21 per cent of cases
where they recommended against approval and we are told that permission
has been given. We have not got an analysis to tell us where those
break down between, for example, cases where an authority may
have wilfully ignored the Environment Agency's advice and others
where there may be very good reasons for an authority with good
local knowledge to take a different view from the Environment
Agency. We need to have that analysis before we can produce an
informed judgment as to whether there is a serious problem which
needs to be addressed.
95. I accept that, but you are treating this
as a matter of urgency?
(Mr Raynsford) Indeed, very much so.
96. I think the Government will appreciate the
Environment Agency and all the services have done a fantastic
job. They have set out the criteria which often planning authorities
have simply ignored, do you now accept as a Government that flood
plains are there to be flooded and that there should be a presumption
against building on flood plains?
(Mr Raynsford) I think there are two distinct issues
which need to be addressed. The first is the functional flood
plains which are there and should continue to be there to provide
the capacity to deal with large surges of water. As I have said
in my earlier statement, we believe there should not be development
in such areas except in wholly exceptional circumstances. However,
there is a wider issue about the definition of flood plains more
generally, and if I can put that in the wider context, the Environment
Agency are not suggesting there should be a presumption against
development in flood plains more widely. They say very clearly
that there has to be a risk-based approach, and we would agree
with that, becauseand let me give an illustration13
per cent of the existing developed land, brownfield land, available
for development lies in flood plains, and much of that is in highly
developed areas such as London, and I have a map which I would
be happy to circulate to the Committee to show that. If we were
to have a presumption against any development at all in defined
flood plains, we simply could not meet our brownfield target and
there would be a need for more greenfield development, and in
many of those brownfield flood plain areas, such as London, effective
preventive measures such as the Thames Barrier have actually provided
the safety which is specifically being recommended in our draft
PPG 25. That is why we do not accept there is a case for a total
presumption against any building in flood plains, but we accept
entirely there should be no building except in very exceptional
circumstances in the functional flood plains which are there to
absorb heavy inundations.
97. You also said in your statement there should
be a presumption against inappropriate development?
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
98. How are you going to define what is "inappropriate
development"? If, for example, you can show, to take Rawcliffe
in the Vale of York, on the outskirts of York, houses and development
like a park-and-ride scheme have led to flooding which was not
predicted, are you going to ask the planning authority to go back
and make good where those flood defences were breached?
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot give an instant comment on
the particular site you have mentioned because obviously I would
need to look at the circumstances, but on the general principle
we certainly do not believe, and I hope I have made that clear
in my earlier statement, there should be development in sites
where there is a serious risk of flooding and those sites cannot
be adequately protected. But, as I said a moment ago, where there
are appropriate protective arrangements in placeand I used
Central London and the Thames Barrier as an exampleit would
not be sensible to have a presumption against building because
the area happens to be defined as a flood plain.
99. Looking at the Environment Agency map, at
least 30 per cent of the Vale of York is a flood plain, you can
argue about whether it is a protective flood plain or not. Can
the Government impose some kind of mechanism, such as prohibitive
mortgages or prohibitive insurance, where developers and planning
authorities go against PPG 25 once it has been tightened and formally
(Mr Raynsford) Clearly, the purpose of issuing the
new PPG 25 will be to ensure that local authorities are taking
account of all the issues which should be considered before reaching
decisions, and we will obviously, as with other planning guidance,
monitor closely its implementation. I would say that the insurance
industry and the mortgage lenders are certainly looking very closely
themselves at these issues because they too have had very serious
consequences from the recent floods and I am sure they will reach
their own conclusions.