Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Session  2007 -08

7 May 2008




COUNTRY STILL UNDERPREPARED FOR FLOODING, WARNS EFRA SELECT COMMITTEE

Flooding-Report published

There was a total lack of awareness about the vulnerability of large parts of the country to flooding until the heavy rainfall of last summer, according to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

In a report published today (May 7), Flooding, the Committee found areas which had been considered at low risk of flooding were badly affected by the surface water flooding in June and July last year. It found flood defence measures focussed almost exclusively on river and coastal flooding and that the infrastructure to deal with floods caused by heavy rainfall was in an “unclear and chaotic state”.

No organisation currently has responsibility for surface water flooding at either the national or local level. For example, during their inquiry MPs heard how in Hull and parts of Sheffield, when heavy rainfall was predicted, local authorities lacked the information to know which areas were vulnerable to flooding. When the heavy rains started no body was responsible for issuing flood warnings to those people whose properties may be affected. When drains began to overflow it was difficult to determine who was responsible for which drains.

MPs want the Environment Agency to have an over-arching role to provide advice and guidance but local authorities should have a statutory duty for surface water drainage to ensure its area remains effectively drained. However, a local authority could sub-contract part of this responsibility where ownership of the drainage system lies with another body.

The Committee recognises a first necessary step to ensure local authorities can fulfil these responsibilities is clarity about the ownership of the different drainage systems in an area. It supports the conclusion in the Review carried out by Sir Michael Pitt that local authorities be required to compile a register of all the main flood risk management and drainage assets, including an assessment of their condition and details of the responsible owners.

The Committee strongly supports greater use of sustainable drainage systems (SUDS) and believes that local authorities should be responsible for the ownership and maintenance of SUDs, as happens elsewhere in Europe.

Individuals also have an element of responsibility and the Committee supports plans to ban the paving over of front gardens with anything other than porous material without planning permission and it recommends that any new discharge of surface water by drain or sewer to a watercourse should require the consent of the Environment Agency.

Ministers have also got to stop suggesting that all will be well because the Government will by 2010/11 have increased spending on flood risk management to £800 million.  This settlement looks far less impressive under close analysis and is not fully adequate to cope with the risks the country faces. Nor does it come fully into effect for another two years.

The Committee were surprised at the precision with which Defra came to the figure of £34.5million to implement Sir Michael Pitt’s report recommendations. The Committee wants an explanation from the Government about how it will fund Sir Michael’s recommendations when his final fully costed report is published, particularly as the total may well come to more than this amount.

The Committee supports the Pitt Review recommendation that all new buildings on the flood plain are properly flood resistant and resilient.

However, it warns that the Pitt Review recommendations may not be able to be implemented unless the Government addresses a skills shortage among engineers working in the flooding and drainage fields.

Local people should be consulted about watercourse and river maintenance and, once a decision on that has been made, the Environment Agency should make this clear and publicly available.

Ofwat must ensure that the full cost to utilities companies of making their facilities flood resistant does not fall to the customer in the form of raised water bills. However, its 2009 review must take into account the need of these companies to improve the resilience of their critical assets.

Householders who live in areas of high flood risk must automatically receive flood-risk warnings from the Environment Agency rather than simply opting in to receive them.

The Chairman of the Committee, the Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, said:

“The public will not forgive the Government if it is not seen to be responding to the lessons learnt from the floods of last summer.

“Our report has shown how confused and chaotic was the infrastructure when it came to preventing and dealing with surface water flooding. The Government must bring clarity to this situation so that the public, wherever they live, can have peace of mind that every effort is being made to avoid a repeat of the fiasco of last summer.

“The Government will not be easily forgiven if their response to last summer’s events are not seen as comprehensive and well funded.

“It is vital that the public can see that policies to deal with surface water flooding are well co-ordinated and managed by key players such as local authorities, the Environment Agency and utility providers.

“The appointment of Sir Michael Pitt as the Environment Agency’s ‘flood supremo’ would be a powerful first step to ensuring that the ‘lessons learnt’ are implemented in reality.”

NOTES TO EDITORS:

Further details about this inquiry can be found at: http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environment__food_and_rural_affairs/efraflooding.cfm

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