Skip to main content

Flood Defences

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

According to the Association of British Insurers, Oxford West and Abingdon is the constituency with the 49th highest flood risk in the UK, with more than 2,000 homes and businesses at significant risk of flooding. That assessment excludes risks associated with surface flooding caused by heavy rainfall. Despite the high level of local flood risk, the Oxford flood risk management scheme received such a low cost-benefit analysis that even under the new “all or part or none” funding provisions, it will be necessary to find non-Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funding for 92% of the project, or approximately £127 million of the £133 million project. At the same time, in Abingdon, where nearly 500 homes and businesses were flooded badly in 2007, neither of the flood storage proposals for the River Stert or the River Ock reached even that level of cost-benefit threshold: they were rejected outright as “not economically viable”.

Those decisions have been disappointing to many, especially those whose homes and families are at risk of flooding, but everyone understands that we are in a time of austerity and that the money must go where it will do the most good—that is fair. Having said that, we heard just before the recess the good news that there would be a lot of weir work going on: Osney weirs A and B and Godstow weir B will receive funding. Design and appraisal work for raised flood defences at Lower Wolvercote, and the Farm road scheme in Abingdon in partnership with the Vale of White Horse district council, will go ahead. This last project’s bid for £40,000 in funding was rejected in December. I am pleased that the Environment Agency has had a change of heart on its viability.

I began this debate by outlining at some length the flood context in my constituency, and will come on to discuss the key issue—funding the replacement for Northmoor weir from flood defence funding—for two reasons. The first is to make the Minister appreciate fully that for far too many people in my constituency, the spending of flood defence money is not a bureaucratic issue to do with balance sheets. Hundreds of people were made homeless for months in 2007, losing prized possessions, mementos and even pets to the floods. Those memories are still raw. Given the current economic situation, we have had to cut flood defence funding by 6%. I need to be able to assure those constituents that, even where money cannot be spent locally, the Government are spending, transparently and accountably, each and every penny of available flood defence funding in the best possible way. Anything less than that is unacceptable.

Secondly, I am not taking issue with flood funding provision in other parts of my constituency today. My concern, and that of my constituents, is the Environment Agency’s programme to replace all paddle and rymer weirs on health and safety grounds and, in particular, the replacement of the Northmoor weir in the village of Appleton in my constituency. My constituents in Appleton and elsewhere have opposed the idea since before my election. Indeed, my first meeting with the Environment Agency and local residents on the subject dates back to before I was elected in 2010. The Minister knows the background only too well following our extensive correspondence, but for the sake of colleagues, I will outline the salient points.

Northmoor weir, like all paddle and rymer weirs, is manually operated by lock-keepers who pull the paddles and rymers out of the weir system to adjust the water levels. The weir has been operating in that way for more than 200 years. Northmoor weir was extensively refurbished in 1995 and given a 40 to 60-year lifespan. Between 2008 and 2010, however, the Environment Agency decided to conduct extensive health and safety tests on the weirs. It is unclear why it suddenly decided to do so, given that the relevant legislation dates back to 1992, before the refurbishment of Northmoor weir, and given that there is no record of a serious injury, which might reasonably be supposed to have triggered such a response.

The report, by HJ Consultants, was of the opinion that it was only a matter of time before there was a major injury on the paddle and rymer weir. That is despite the fact that the only injuries recorded under the safety, health and environmental reporting and management system since 2000 are strains, sprains and splinters. Even before the introduction of that system, the assessor could only record one brain haemorrhage, in 1991, that may or may not be attributed to the pulling of a paddle and, before the introduction of safety harnesses, an incident in which a lock-keeper at Blakes weir fell in. I assume that safety harnesses have now addressed that situation.

The consultant found that the loads at the weir exceeded the levels recommended by the Health and Safety Executive, but found no evidence that that had caused any significant problem in more than two centuries of use, even though the consultant found that there had been no regular programme of health and safety training offered to lock-keepers, with one lock-keeper last receiving manual handling training more than seven years ago. Just think how many fewer sprains and splinters there might have been if regular training had been provided during that time, and if there was a work pattern that provided a formal break for lock-keepers in the morning, as recommended on page five.

Should the Minister think I am being a little hard on lock-keepers, here is what one of them wrote to the Prime Minister on the issue:

“My work over the years included the operation of both Paddle and Rymer and more modern weirs, and I can say that, with proper training, care and safety precautions, there was very little danger involved. Any equipment can be worked dangerously. The worst scenario was the possibility of misjudging the placing of a rymer or a paddle in the flowing water: one had the choice between trying to save it or losing it through the weir! It was not a very hard choice! Also, it was not actually lost, and would float around in the vicinity until retrieved later.”

That is just one of many similar comments I have received from Thames lock-keepers. Nevertheless, it was on the basis of that health and safety report that the Environment Agency decided it was imperative to spend £2.6 million from the flood defence funds to replace Northmoor weir.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, which of course touches on matters that affect my constituency, too. Will she join me in congratulating the Oxford Flood Alliance for its work, and does she agree that the Environment Agency generally takes better decisions when it takes notice of what the OFA and local residents have to say? Even if the health and safety case was accepted, the Environment Agency should be funding the project not from flood prevention money, but from some other budget.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The Oxford Flood Alliance has stated publicly, and to me personally, that it has significant reservations about the project.

The Environment Agency has stated that the project will improve the weir’s resilience and speed of operation. At a meeting of the Environment Agency, Northmoor and Appleton parish councillors and me in December, the EA acknowledged that there had never been any problem with the operation of the weir, even in times of flood. It is important to note that the project will not reduce flood risk. The EA specifically confirmed to me in writing, and at the meeting of December 2011, that the project will not reduce flood risk in any way, and that in any case—according to the EA—the number of properties affected directly by the operation of the weir amounts to five. That comes out at £500,000 per property, if we are counting. Nevertheless, the finance will still come from the flood defence budget.

According to the EA in December 2011, the project has such high priority that it would go ahead even if it cost £10 million. On hearing that extraordinary statement, I became uncomfortably well acquainted with the health and safety apparatus of Whitehall, as every good constituency MP should. On writing to the HSE, to ask whether such a position was reasonable, I was told:

“The EA has carried out an extensive risk assessment. The aim of the risk assessment is to help the EA identify reasonably practicable ways of reducing or controlling the risks of injury from operating the weirs. As part of this, the EA would need to consider costs and their likely effectiveness in reducing the risks.”

I have been astonished to learn, however, that EA policy is apparently not to conduct cost-benefit analyses for health and safety projects, even if they come from flood defence funding, a budget considered so precious that all flood defence proposals must be subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analysis. I was told by the EA in December that that was because the policy was to eliminate all risk.

Being joyfully unfamiliar with the health and safety world until then, I thought that cost-benefit analyses might not generally be conducted for health and safety. In fact, the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, which are the relevant health and safety regulations, state:

“The extent of the employer’s duty to avoid manual handling or to reduce the risk of injury is determined by reference to what is ‘reasonably practicable’. This duty can be satisfied if the employer can show that the cost of any further preventive steps would be grossly disproportionate to the further benefit from their introduction.”

The concept of “so far as is reasonably practicable” was tested in case law as far back as 1949, in Edwards v. National Coal Board, which established that a computation must be made in which the quantum of risk is placed on one scale and the sacrifice, whether in money, time or trouble involved in the measures necessary to avert the risk, is placed on the other. If it be shown that there is gross disproportion between them, the risk being insignificant in relation to the sacrifice, the person upon whom the duty is laid has discharged the burden of proving that compliance was not reasonably practicable.

It is clear, therefore, that what is required by law is not to eliminate the risk, as I was informed, but to reduce the risk to what is reasonably practicable and to consider the cost of doing so. Any action in which the cost was grossly disproportionate would not be required by law, and the HSE expected the EA to have considered the cost. Indeed, freely available on the HSE website I found not one but two helpful documents that walked me through how to do a cost-benefit analysis for a health and safety project, one of which even had a user-friendly checklist. I am not a lawyer, though, so I asked to see the EA’s legal advice, to see if there were grounds for the multi-million-pound health and safety investment that I had failed to grasp. The EA, however, confirmed that before committing to the full replacement of nine paddle and rymer weirs as the only appropriate level of response to its legal responsibilities under health and safety legislation, it had taken no legal advice of any kind.

The picture is now fairly clear, but before closing, I will express one further concern that has arisen in discussions about EA plans for Northmoor weir. It is about the really poor standard of consultation and communication that has marked the process from the beginning. Appleton residents, who will bear the brunt of building disruption if the project goes ahead, found out about the project when there was an application for suspension of parking along the route to the weir. Understandably, that led to outrage in the village and a vigorous local campaign by the parish council and the Weir Action Group, but despite delaying the work for a year, ostensibly to consult with the local community, the only change that the EA has made to the project so far was the proposal for a change of access route, so that Appleton residents experience less disruption during the two years that the work will take.

Obviously, if the weir goes ahead regardless of every objection I have put forward today, it is clearly preferable that the works route is not directly through the village, but the local objections, and the objections from some on the far side of the river and from others at risk of flooding in the rest of my constituency, are not simply about a works route. They are about the whole justification of the project, and its funding from the flood defence budget. To characterise them as anything else is simply inaccurate and misleading.

Other concerns about the quality of consultation have come to me from owners of nearby land considered for use in possible access routes. One wrote to me to say:

“At no time has the EA been in direct contact with us (or any of the relevant landowners I believe). I first heard of the whole project in February 2010—the proposed start date for the project then was 1 April 2010! I was then rung by a neighbouring farmer to warn me that the Contractors for the EA were going to come and survey our land but…the Contractors…had been unable to find out who owned our land and had contacted him for our telephone number. I phoned the contractors who paid me a visit prior to doing the survey. They were perfectly pleasant but I think as shocked as I was that the EA had not been in contact with me. The survey was duly done but we have never received any information or follow up from either the Contractors or the EA since”.

I am afraid that that example is not isolated. Failure to follow up meetings, to contact individuals or to communicate more widely have been hallmarks of the project so far.

The EA accepted in the December 2011 meeting that there had been significant such failures, but that does not seem to have stopped it, as is evident from a letter from the chairman of the board of the Environment Agency—briefed, I assume, by his officials—to the Minister. The letter claims that I believed that the £2.6 million being spent on the weir should be transferred to other local flood defence schemes. The Minister must know that I have never made that suggestion, and nor would I.

I said that when other flood defence schemes locally were being turned down, it was difficult to justify spending £2.6 million on health and safety, which is what it is. I said that flood defence money must be allocated on the grounds of greatest need, wherever that might be. I fully accept that, and my constituents fully accept that, but I am unable to assure my constituents that that is what is happening in this case, because the necessary due diligence on the project was never done. I said that when every flood defence proposal that is granted funding is first tested to destruction by EA cost-benefit analysis models, it is incomprehensible that in this case the EA is willing to spend millions of flood defence money with no cost-benefit analysis of any kind, with no legal advice of any kind and with no analysis of alternatives that would work for Northmoor weir specifically.

I ask the Minister, therefore, to ensure that the EA suspends the project until there has been a full and transparent cost-benefit analysis. On Wednesday, I discussed the project with the Prime Minister, as the MP for the other side of the weir, so I know that he has also written to the Minister asking for that to be done. The Prime Minister is also concerned that we should be able to defend our flood defence spending fully to the public. We will not be able to do so, however, until there is also sound legal advice that this multi-million pound health and safety investment is reasonably practicable, and not grossly disproportionate, and, most sensible of all, until we have a genuine Northmoor-specific study to see if there are more proportionate options that will meet the EA’s genuine health and safety obligations.

My constituents face flood risk daily, but they are not asking for preferential treatment or for funding of projects that do not meet the cost-benefit thresholds set by DEFRA. All they want to know is that flood defence money is being spent on genuine flood defence projects, and that every single penny of that budget can be transparently accounted for. All they want is a fair playing field.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on securing the debate and her reputation around Whitehall as a doughty champion of her constituents. I am delighted to respond to her concerns about the replacement of the manually operated paddle and rymer weir at Northmoor with a mechanised radial gate system.

My initial reaction was similar: how can the Environment Agency justify spending £2.5 million on a weir when the money could be better spent protecting people and property? I can appreciate people’s frustration with the expenditure of such a large sum of money on the works and with two summers of disruption in the constituencies affected, apparently just to meet a health and safety requirement with little flood risk benefit. My hon. Friend also expressed concerns about the decision to proceed without undertaking a full assessment of the flood benefits of the new structure. I shall take those points in turn.

First, I ought to set out the Environment Agency’s case for replacing the structure. A succession of weirs along the Thames, some in my constituency, regulate water levels. In a flood event, it is vital that the weir does not obstruct the flow of water, otherwise the north side of the river—in the case of the Northmoor weir—will flood.

The Environment Agency has confirmed that the replacement of the Northmoor weir will not improve the flood risk. Is the Minister claiming that the replacement of Northmoor weir is to improve flood risk?

I shall come on to that, because there is a flood risk issue, which I will cover later in my remarks.

The Northmoor weir is one of five major weirs being replaced as part of a single contract. The other four are already under construction or are now in place. The high price tag is a consequence of the size of the structure: the weir is more than 22 metres wide, stretching right across the Thames. The replacement has a predicted operational life of at least 60 years, and similar structures elsewhere have already proven effective and reliable. The problems with the existing weir structure have been known for some time.

During flood conditions, Environment Agency staff must lift an effective weight of up to 60 kg to shift the paddles. That is four times the safe working load recommended by the Health and Safety Executive. It is just about possible for two people to operate the paddles together, but at an awkward angle and at twice the safe working load. In the mid-1990s, an attempt was made to find a cheap and cheerful approach to solving the problem by replacing the wooden paddles with fibreglass. That reduced the weight of the paddles, but did little to solve the real problem. The sheer force of water, particularly on the deeper paddles, makes the job hard.

Two independent reports have been produced on the operational risks involved. As well as the weight, manual operation of the weir in response to flood alerts means working in difficult weather conditions for several hours. It is dangerous and tiring work. There are many weirs and gates along this stretch of the river that all need to be operated in tandem to prevent flooding of the houses to the north of the river. That is a key point. The structures need to be operated quickly when flooding is predicted, and an injury to a staff member halfway through would exacerbate local flooding.

First, will the Minister accept that, despite those working conditions, there is no record of any serious injury on the weir? Secondly, will he accept that the number of properties directly affected are, as the Environment Agency stated at the December meeting, five?

If the weir does not work, properties will be flooded. We can argue that the existing paddle and rymer weir works perfectly well, but as my hon. Friend knows, the Environment Agency has received consultants’ reports stating that the working load is way in excess of what one would normally allow for employees. I am sure that that she would agree that she and I as employers in business would have to take note of advice that is given. One always tries to do that proportionately, but it must be understood that the advice was given. It would be difficult for the Government to sit at arm’s length and ignore advice that the loading is four times too high and the risks that emanate from that. It is difficult for Ministers to overrule such advice, but I will talk about that further.

The Health and Safety Executive has seen the reports from the Environment Agency and the Appleton Weir Action Group and has written back in support of the agency’s position. As a responsible employer, the Environment Agency cannot ignore the advice of the Health and Safety Executive. Sitting back and doing nothing is no longer an option. The weir clearly poses risks to those who must operate it and to those live in the neighbouring constituency. An assessment of risk is not just about whether there have been accidents, but about the potential for accidents. I am a sceptic of all matters relating to health and safety, and I do not come to the matter as a quisling of the health and safety industry, for that is what it has become. I come to it as a sceptic, like my hon. Friend. I have looked at the matter in great detail, and if I were an employer on the board of the Environment Agency, I would find it difficult to ignore the report.

That brings me to the flood benefits of the weir, and why they have not been assessed for this project. The flood risk in the area is well known. Around 80 houses behind the north bank have a 1% chance or greater of flooding each year. In flood conditions, the Northmoor weir is opened, so that flood water can pass through as quickly as possible. The relationship between the weir structure and flood risk is well understood and would not benefit from further investigation. Doing that would have added unnecessary and damaging cost to an already expensive project.

If the Minister is relying for this part of his argument on the flood prevention benefit that he supposes exists, is it not right, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) said, that there should be a cost-benefit analysis? If that is not made and he is relying on the health and safety part of his argument, how can be justify taking the cost from the flood prevention budget? Surely, he cannot have it both ways.

During my long discussions with the Environment Agency, I became convinced that it really does understand the flood risks. I do not believe that it spends money without looking carefully at the alternatives. I have seen all eight or nine alternatives that have been presented—many of them were untried and untested as a means of lifting the paddle and rymers out using mechanical systems—as well as replacements with alternative schemes. All of them, because of the design processes that would have to be applied and the further delay, would have cost more. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is understood throughout the Environment Agency and my Department that every penny that we spend must be spent in the right way. We ensure that the budgets that we manage go as far as possible, and I will come on to explain why the spending must go ahead.

Given that something must be done, the Environment Agency has focused on identifying the cheapest and best way to solve the problem. It looked into the matter in considerable detail, and I have seen the summary of the detailed analysis, which points to the radial gate solution that the agency is pursuing. The other options would be more expensive, and in some cases there would be no guarantee that they would even work, because they are untried in other areas. Replacing the weir will not remove risks altogether, but it will reduce them to a reasonable level for the staff concerned and provide more reliable long-term protection for those living on the flood plain to the north.

When reviewing the background to the matter, I also considered the steps the Environment Agency has taken to consult local residents on the project. Objections have been raised, primarily from those who are not at risk of flooding, but who will suffer increased traffic and disruption during the work, and I entirely understand that.

That is not entirely accurate. I have received objections to the weir project from people who are at risk of flooding throughout my constituency and nearby constituencies.

I entirely accept that. I am talking about the local community, and the most vociferous objections are about disruption. I do not want to disrupt people’s lives more than we must. I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that I want to put on record that others are strongly supportive. Northmoor parish council has twice written to the Environment Agency urging it to proceed with the work as soon as possible.

Proposals to replace the five weirs have been considered by the Thames Regional Flood Defence Committee, and it has agreed to include them in the flood defence programme. That is important because the committee is made up of elected councillors from local authorities in the region. They provide a degree of local democratic input and accountability for decisions to allocate funding. They will not have taken the decision to allocate £2.5 million to Northmoor lightly, and they recognise other flood defence priorities in the region.

Over the past two years, the Environment Agency has consulted extensively with local residents and listened to their concerns about the scheme. I am sure that many would like to have had more, and I will take up the matter of the contractor, which causes me genuine concern. The agency has heard what people have been saying about the increased traffic south of the river and made substantial adjustments to the plans, at an additional cost of £100,000 to the project.

The work has the support of Northmoor parish council and the Thames Regional Flood Defence Committee. Despite limited national funds, the Environment Agency’s board has allocated funding to allow it to proceed. The chair of the Environment Agency wrote to me last week setting out the justification for the project. I have heard my hon. Friend’s points, and the views she expresses on behalf of her constituents. I have considerable sympathy but, as is common, there are two sides to the story. I am satisfied that this is a case not of health and safety gone mad, but of something needing to be done to solve a problem that perhaps should have been sorted out some time ago. I am sorry, but I do not take the view that, just because there has not been an accident, one may not occur.

I understand that there may be areas where consultation could have been improved. I will make every effort to ensure that the points that my hon. Friend raised are answered, and I will do so in a letter as we are running out of time. I assure her that I will continue to converse with her and do my best to minimise the impact on her constituents. I want to put it on the record that I fight to ensure that every penny of money that is spent on flood alleviation schemes is spent in the best way possible, and I hope that she will come to realise that the problem has been dealt with in the best possible way.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.