Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Session 2005-06

11 May 2006

11 May 2006


The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is concerned that the advice of the Environment Agency is not being fully taken into account when it comes to allowing house building on land at risk of flooding.

It is one of the issues raised in a wide-ranging report on the Environment Agency. Ministers are criticised for not providing a robust appraisal of whether the Agency has actually achieved what it was designed to do, and for not addressing how its role should change to take account of the Government's sustainability agenda and the challenges of climate change. The Committee would also like to see tougher sentences for environmental offenders.

To minimise flood risk, the Committee urges the Government to give the Agency statutory consultee status for planning applications for developments in those areas where there is a danger of flooding. This would mean that significant housing developments in flood plains proposed against the Agency's advice would be referred to Ministers. Such a move is currently being considered by the Government.

The Agency estimates that over five million people and two million homes and businesses are currently at risk of flooding in England and Wales, with assets valued at £250 billion. The Agency also told the Committee that flood risk could increase "as much as 20 fold in the future" due to the effects of climate change. In 2004, at least 693 houses were built in flood risk areas against Agency advice, and it is estimated that the Agency is consulted in fewer than 60 per cent of applications where there is a risk of flooding.

The Committee concludes the Government needs to increase the Agency's funding in the area of flood defence work to £1 billion per year in the long term.

The report also urges that much more should be done to deter environmental offenders. Among the changes the Committee would like to see are much higher fines for those companies which commit environmental crimes. In 2004 the average fine for a business was £8,500 - £500 less than in 2003. Often the fine is less than the profit gained from breaking the law.

The Committee also wants a more consistent sentencing policy for environmental crimes and supports a proposal from the Agency for a team of magistrates to be trained specifically to deal with environmental cases.

Discussions taking place within the Government about the prosecution of environmental cases are welcome. However, the Committee would like to see the immediate publication of a Green Paper proposing ways to improve the system by which courts administer environmental prosecutions.

Speaking on publication of the Report, the Committee's Chairman, Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, said:

"This report comes at a timely moment for the new Ministerial team at Defra. We hope it will encourage the Secretary of State to thoroughly review the role of the Agency to make sure that it is fully equipped to deal with the growing environmental challenges of the twenty-first century".

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1. For media inquiries, or to arrange bids for the Chairman of the EFRA Committee, Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, please call Laura Kibby on 07917 488 557. For information about the Committee's inquiry, please call Marek Kubala on 020 7219 1380. The full report will be available on the Committee's website soon after 00.01 am on Thursday 11 May. Website: www.parliament.uk/efracom.

2. The Environment Agency is the leading public body protecting and improving the environment in England and Wales. It is an executive non-departmental public body (NDPB), with an annual budget of £1 billion, which employs more than 11,000 staff: the second largest agency of its type in the world and the largest in Europe. It was created by the Environment Act 1995 and came into operation in April 1996, taking over the roles and responsibilities of the National Rivers Authority, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and the waste regulation authorities in England and Wales. Ten years after its creation, the Committee believed a review of the Agency's effectiveness and funding (including value for money)€”and its relationships with Defra and other key bodies€”was opportune.

3. The Committee received written evidence from a number of interested parties. It took oral evidence from: the Association of British Insurers; Royal & SunAlliance; the Confederation of British Industry; EEF, the manufacturers' organisation; Water UK; Environmental Services Association; Waste Recycling Group; the Natural England partnership; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Campaign to Protect Rural England; Local Government Association; the Minister of State for Climate Change and the Environment, Elliot Morley MP, together with Defra officials; and the Chief Executive of the Agency, Baroness Young of Old Scone, and the Chairman, Sir John Harman. Transcripts of these evidence sessions can be found at: www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environment__food_and_rural_affairs/efra_the_environment_agency.cfm. The Committee also benefited from a visit to the Agency's London Headquarters to meet Agency staff and discuss the work of the Agency.