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Flooding: Pitt Report

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2008


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in another place.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Government’s response to Sir Michael Pitt’s final report on the floods of summer 2007. Last weekend’s flooding in the south-west, in which two people very sadly died, reminds us of the ever-present risk we face and of the importance of Sir Michael’s comprehensive and impressive report.

In his 92 recommendations published in June, Sir Michael identified a need to clarify who is responsible for what, to ensure that the public have all the information and guidance they need, to work with the essential services to assess risk and protect critical infrastructure, to have a clear recovery programme right from the start of any major emergency, and to establish the right legislative framework to tackle flooding.

I can tell the House that the Government’s action plan being published today supports changes in response to all of his recommendations, but before setting out these changes I want to acknowledge the continuing effects of the flooding as a second Christmas approaches.

The fact that most people are now back home, thanks to a good deal of hard work, will be of little comfort to those families who are still out of their homes or living upstairs in them. Our thoughts are with them and their plight reminds us all just what a toll flooding takes on people’s lives and emotions and just how difficult it can be to get things going again. That is why, working with local authorities and the insurance industry, we will continue to do all we can to help. My right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government announced last month further help for these families.

We have taken action in the 18 months since the 2007 floods. The Environment Agency has spent £5 million on repairing defences that were damaged. Forty-nine flood-defence schemes have been completed, protecting 37,000 homes from Selby in Yorkshire to St Ives in Cornwall, and from West Bridgford in Nottingham to Worcester and Hexham where newly built defences successfully protected the town from significant flooding in September this year.

Over 78,000 more people have now registered with the Environment Agency’s telephone flood-warning system. The total is now 280,000. All local resilience forums have been briefed on critical national infrastructure in their area and we have brought forward £20 million of flood-defence spending to 2009-10. This will mean an earlier start on these schemes which, when completed, will protect over 27,000 homes from flooding and coastal erosion. In total, over £2.15 billion investment in flood defence over the three years to 2010-11 will protect an additional 145,000 homes across England.

The further steps I am announcing today draw both on the £34.5 million I set aside to implement Sir Michael’s report and on funding from other existing budgets. We are creating a new National Flood Forecasting Centre, bringing together staff from the Environment Agency and the Met Office. This will start operating in April and will improve our ability to respond quickly by providing better information and more detailed warnings directly to emergency responders. Having previously decided that the Environment Agency will take on a strategic overview for all forms of flooding, I am today announcing that local authorities will be responsible for ensuring that arrangements are in place to assess and manage local flood risk from all sources, including surface water. In two-tier council areas, this responsibility will rest with the county councils but we will encourage them to work closely with districts, internal drainage boards and others.

I am increasing funding to local authorities by £15 million to allow authorities where the risk is greatest to take on this new role straight away. Part of this will be for the development of surface water management plans. I can announce that the first six local areas which have successfully bid for these funds are Hull, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Warrington, Richmond-upon-Thames and West Berkshire. I am establishing in addition a £5 million grant scheme, which local authorities can bid for, to help people to better protect their homes from the risk of flooding; for example, through fitting flood boards and air-brick covers. This help will be available where it is not possible to provide protection through community-level defences.

I am also providing funding to help the Environment Agency improve flood warnings, including moving to an opt-out system for ex-directory numbers. I am also putting money into improving our flood-rescue capability so that we can make the best use of the skilled personnel and boats available. The National Flood Framework will help ensure that all the organisations involved in responding to floods, including those responsible for critical national infrastructure, understand and are fully prepared for what they have to do.

An outline framework has already been published, and the consultation we are launching will enable us to complete the job. Meanwhile, organisations are already taking action to identify and protect infrastructure.

On reservoir safety, we are doubling funding for inundation maps for all the country’s larger reservoirs, and we are providing support for local resilience forums to prepare reservoir emergency plans.

We will be publishing a draft floods and water Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in spring next year to deal with those of Sir Michael’s recommendations, including clearer roles and responsibilities and strengthening reservoir safety, which require primary legislation.

On Monday, I announced that we intend to transfer to water and sewerage companies private sewers and lateral drains that connect to the public system. This was welcomed by Sir Michael, and it will release many householders from a liability they often do not know they have until something goes wrong and they face a hefty bill to sort it out. The transfer will take place from April 2011.

Finally, we are establishing a Cabinet committee to oversee work on flooding, and Sir Michael will continue to be involved in reviewing progress.

The House knows that we can never eliminate the risk of flooding, particularly as climate change takes hold, but we are all determined to learn the lessons from what has happened and to be better prepared in future. All of us—government, local authorities, emergency and other services, local communities and individuals—must take flood risk seriously. This report and the steps we are taking will help us to do so, and I commend them to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, it is nearly six months since the Secretary of State made a Statement in another place, which was then repeated in your Lordships’ House, welcoming the final report of Sir Michael Pitt following the summer floods 18 months ago. We, too, welcomed that report and I welcome the Statement today. I thank the Minister for repeating it here and for the courtesy that he has shown in providing me with a copy well in time.

A week ago, in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, I expressed disappointment that there was no mention in the Speech of the Government’s proposed draft floods and water Bill. Although I do not presume that my comments have caused the men in the shadows of this Government to urge today’s Statement, I suspect that the absence of the draft Bill and the tragic events of last weekend have done so. I expect that the feelings of the whole House are with the families whose lives have been disrupted by this latest flooding and particularly with the families of those who have lost their lives. I expect that they are also with the hundreds of families who are still out of their homes and will be on Christmas Day, exactly six months since Mr Benn welcomed the report and 18 months after the July floods. Can the Minister tell the House how many families are still waiting to go home and how many may still be out of their homes at Christmas?

It is clear that the Statement is a knee-jerk reaction to events and an attempt to cover the Government’s back for their inaction in tackling the issues that Sir Michael identified in his 92 recommendations. How many of those recommendations have the Government accepted and how many have been implemented?

Much is made of the significant spending that the Government have provided and of the works completed. Much of the programming for these predates both the summer floods and the Pitt report. How much of the programme has been subject to delay? The 49 schemes referred to protect 37,000 homes, but 2.3 million homes are reckoned to be at risk from flooding. The defences came too late to save Morpeth earlier this year. By the same score, what are the Government doing to extend the telephone warning system beyond the 280,000 people now connected? As I said, 2.3 million homes are at risk.

If there is a reason for the Government’s dithering, it lies in the apparent indecision as to where the responsibility is to rest. Having committed the Environment Agency to take on a strategic role, the Government are now turning to local authorities and IDBs to do the work. I do not disagree with that but there is still an ambiguity, which only the production of a Bill can resolve.

We note the increased funding for local government for the development of surface water management plans. That is a key issue but I am disappointed that Sheffield and Rotherham, badly hit in July 2007, are not listed. Will the Minister say why? Did they not submit a bid or was their bid rejected and, if so, why? When can the people of South Yorkshire expect to be part of the Government’s plans? What percentage of critical infrastructure still lies unprotected? How long will it be before the Government will have fulfilled this programme?

It was in 2005 that the Government announced the policy to end institutional confusion on flood management. The summer floods of 2007, and further tragic floods, have still not provided the Government with the inspiration to produce a draft Bill. In July 2007, Gordon Brown promised to,

“get people back on their feet as quickly as possible”.

On 6 July, he told GMTV:

“There is obviously a huge number of people who have been affected. I really feel sorry for individuals, some of whom are still staying in temporary accommodation. We will do all we can”.

In September 2007, he said:

“My whole attention has been on dealing with the floods first of all … I am determined to learn lessons from these challenges”.

We have there the reason for this Statement—a Prime Minister too busy saving the world to remember his previous interest in this subject is reminded by the weekend’s events of what has not been done and decisions that have still not been made.

My Lords, we, too, welcome the Statement. Even more, we feel that we should express our gratitude to Sir Michael Pitt for his thorough report and recommendations.

Perhaps I may take your Lordships’ House just a little further back than the 2007 floods. I was involved in the flash floods in north Cornwall on the outskirts of Boscastle on Monday 16 August 2004. I fear that the lessons from that Cornish experience were not learnt before the 2007 repeat flash floods.

There were four lessons in particular. The first is the vital importance of speedy public information, to which both the Statement and Sir Michael referred. I strongly recommend to the Minister that he looks carefully at the role of local radio. Those of us who travel around can now make sure that we get all the traffic news immediately interrupting national programmes. That would be an effective way of ensuring that people do not go into a flood area or that they can find their way out of one safely. Recently, loss of life in Cornwall was prevented by the so-called extreme rainfall alert that the Environment Agency used, which made possible pre-deployment of emergency services and, as a result, people were rescued from their vehicles.

Secondly, a lesson that should be learnt is that the co-ordination of emergency services is critical. We saw that in Boscastle. It is clear that the regionalisation threatened for control centres may destroy that effective local co-ordination, which would be a backward step. Thirdly, helicopter crews in the north Cornwall emergency were absolutely critical. They saved many lives. We would have had drastic loss of life if it were not for them. Again, we are having a dispersal of that expertise under the Ministry of Defence proposals. Fourthly, the then Deputy Prime Minister assured me as the local Member of Parliament that the confusion arising out of the Bellwin formula, which allocates resources in an emergency to different levels of local authority, would be reviewed. However, there is no reference to that in the Statement and I have not been able to find anything in Sir Michael’s recommendations that deals with it.

All those issues should have been addressed between 2004 and 2007. It is sad that Sir Michael was not asked to undertake this review immediately after the Cornish example rather than having had to wait for a repeat in 2007. As has been said, the key recommendations from the Pitt report were available six months ago. He was calling for immediate action. Six months is not immediate action.

It is also sad to note that the delays that seem to have occurred have been not because of indecision about which organisation should be taking primary responsibility, but because of funding issues. Will the Minister say, if he can, what role the Treasury has had in deciding what should happen in the intervening period?

Building on flood plains is an extremely important issue. I understand that there is talk of a further review of PPS25 in this respect. Will the Minister give an undertaking that that will be urgently pursued, as it is obviously of critical importance? Perhaps he can also indicate the numbers in the current new homes targets that may be threatened by a review of the flood plain allocations.

Scotland has a flood risk Bill now in progress, so why do England and Wales have to await lengthy pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill, which will probably mean that we will not get full legislation this side of a general election? I return to my original point: why did we not have a fully comprehensive Pitt review after the 2004 Cornish emergencies? Why did we have to wait for the repeat in 2007?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, welcomed the Statement, but not much else. I thought that he was uncharacteristically critical of what the Government have been doing in this area. I wish to allay his concerns. He implied that the Government have been complacent in the speed with which they have responded to the circumstances of the floods, which had so many tragic consequences. The draft Bill, which we will have in the spring, will allow a great deal of scrutiny, as is absolutely right. On complacency, we had the full Pitt report only a few months ago. This House is always complaining about hasty legislation. Surely it is important that we get it right and respond to the request, which I hear in your Lordships’ House time after time, for pre-legislative scrutiny.

On what has been happening in the interim period, I remind the noble Lord that there was an interim report as a result of the Pitt process. The Government have not simply waited to come here today before taking action. If one looks through the recommendations made in the interim report, one sees that a considerable amount of work has already been undertaken: groundwater level at a time of high risk has been monitored by the Environment Agency; the Environment Agency has developed policy on the use of demountable and temporary defences; all local resilience forums are to review local arrangements for water rescue; and so on. I would be happy to write to noble Lords with the extensive list. We have not been complacent.

On whether we have accepted all the recommendations, the answer is broadly yes. However, we have reservations about recommendation 84, which suggested that we move to a formulistic recovery funding approach. We accept that there has to be a clearer process for accessing funding, but it also needs to be flexible and more responsive. Therefore, we are agreeing a set of principles across Whitehall, because a number of government departments are involved. I can confidently say that the broad thrust of Sir Michael’s reports have been accepted and will be implemented by the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, was absolutely right to draw attention to the number of people who will still be out of their homes. My understanding is that the figures at mid-November were 1,045 households still displaced. Based on extrapolation, we think that the number that will still be out of their homes by Christmas will be about 500. Of course that is a matter for concern. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which still relate to insurance issues and drying-out processes. I understand that in some cases refurbishment took place before the house had fully dried out and therefore further work has, regrettably, had to be undertaken. In some cases, building work has gone wrong and has needed to be redone, and some people opted to take a cash settlement. However, there is clearly no room for complacency, which is why my right honourable friend Mr Healey announced a package of measures to support the people who have been so affected.

I agree that the warning system is important. There has been a considerable increase in the number of people connected. The figure is now 280,000 people and I understand it is expected to be more than 400,000 people by the end of next year.

The noble Lord asked about the mapping of national strategic sites. There has been considerable progress. We have established a cross-sector systematic process to reduce the disruption of essential services resulting from natural hazards. We are setting up a natural hazard team within Whitehall to monitor this process. National Grid has purchased 1.2 kilometres of relocatable defences like those used at Walham substation last year. Considerable work has been undertaken and will continue to be undertaken in this important area.

The noble Lord asked about the selection of the first six local areas that successfully bid for funds for the development of surface water management plans and expressed concern that Sheffield and Rotherham were not in those six. Places are initially being funded to do the planning for surface water. They were chosen as a result of proposals from those areas most heavily affected by surface flooding, but I reassure the noble Lord that we will roll out the funding for this work ahead of the relevant legislation, which will be in the draft Bill, and I understand that we have the ability to do so.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about local radio is well taken, particularly in view of the experience in the example that he gave. I will make sure that that is reported to the right quarters. It is vital that local services are co-ordinated and it is entirely appropriate that I refer to our decision to give leadership at the local level to local authorities. I am sure that that will be welcomed by noble Lords taking part in the debate on the Second Reading of the local government Bill, which will follow this Statement. The noble Lord is worried about regional control centres, which I know are of continuing interest to many noble Lords. I had an interest in them when I was a Minister in the Department of Health because of the implications for the ambulance service and the need to co-ordinate. I understand his concerns, but regional control centres offer many advantages. There clearly needs to be a co-ordinated response.

We believe we have the structure right with the overall strategy laid down by government, the strategic overall role for all types of flooding, including coastal flooding, resting with the Environment Agency and the local leadership role resting with the top-tier local authorities. In a two-tier local authority situation, we would expect district councils to play an important role. Local resilience forums also have an important role to play. In the draft Bill, it will be seen that a duty of partnership will be laid on the organisations that are most critically involved, including the water companies. We think that we have the right structure to take forward the work that needs to be undertaken. We can reassure the public that there will be a co-ordinated response where that needs to take place.

I well understand the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about building on the flood plain. He will know that planning policy statement 25 toughened up the process of approval with a presumption against building in high flood risk areas, including giving consideration to all sources of flood risk and ensuring that developers make a full contribution to the cost of building and maintaining any necessary defences. We are carrying out an initial review of how PPS25 is being implemented by local planning authorities with the aim of identifying any barriers to delivery and determining whether any further measures are needed. Clearly, if noble Lords have individual concerns on that, I would be very happy to feed them into the review process.

My Lords, this Statement is greatly welcomed and will be pored over in Cumbria. Will my noble friend assure us that pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill will take place in a Joint Committee and not the Defra Select Committee in the House of Commons? A Select Committee consideration in the Commons is much briefer than would be the case here, where the legislation would spend far more time in the committee and would be subject to far greater scrutiny. Finally, is there a need to place in the Bill a requirement on water companies to manage their assets in such a way as to avoid flood damage to local communities in periods of flooding?

My Lords, on his first point, my noble friend probably will know that I cannot give an assurance about how pre-legislative scrutiny will be undertaken. That is a matter for the usual channels and I am sure discussions will take place. However, I fully recognise that noble Lords would have an extremely important contribution to make to pre-legislative scrutiny if they are given the opportunity. I will certainly make sure that that matter is fully considered.

I am not sure that I can go all the way with my noble friend on what should be in the Bill in relation to water companies, but I can tell him that we certainly will want to ensure that in the arrangements brought together as a result of the Bill, water companies will play their full part. In 2011, they will take over responsibility for private sewers. I have already said that in the new structure a duty of partnership will be laid on the relevant organisations, which will include the water companies.

My Lords, I, too, largely support the thrust of this Statement. It is welcome that the Government are publishing an action plan today, which supports, as the Minister said, the changes to all 92 of Sir Michael’s recommendations. The Environment Agency’s role used to be one of flood protection, which was down-graded to flood management. Now its role is taking a further step back to one of strategic overview. The responsibility for flood risk assessment and management is being transferred to local authorities, but the £15 million additional funding will go only to the six local authorities listed in the Statement. Will the remaining local authorities expect to receive funding for their additional responsibilities or will the burden fall on the ratepayers? As the Environment Agency’s role is diminishing from flood protection to management to overview, are the Government considering diverting some of their funds to local authorities?

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord’s first question about whether the arrangements I have outlined will lead to the Environment Agency taking a step back, that is not how I see it. The strategic overview role for the agency will involve it in providing support and guidance for local authorities, the development of modelling, mapping and warning systems, national investment in flood and coastal erosion risk management measures, powers to instigate works on non-Environment Agency assets, and as a statutory consultee on flood and coastal erosion planning applications. All this gives the agency sufficient power, status and responsibility to take the leadership role at the national strategic level.

At the local level, we think that local authorities will have an important role to play, not just in terms of leadership and accountability for the effective management of local flood risk but also in improved drainage and flood risk management expertise to co-ordinate surface water issues, the production of management plans, drainage from non-Highways Agency roads, prioritising local investment, the maintenance of ordinary watercourses and their own drainage assets. There is a considerable role for local government, thus there is no reason why central and local bodies cannot work together in a sensible partnership.

The resources comprise not just the £15 million announced in this package but new funding of £34.5 million which will help fund the implementation of the Pitt programme. Of course I understand the concern of local authorities; indeed, we are about to hear a general message from noble Lords expressing their wish to place new responsibilities on them, and this is an example of where the Government are doing so. I have read the response of the Local Government Association to the Statement and I appreciate the concerns about additional resource pressures, but we believe that we have come up with a reasonable package. We also have the New Burdens Doctrine whereby if new burdens are placed on local authorities, the funding for them has to be identified. We are looking to local authorities to demonstrate a strong local leadership role and we think that they have in place the resources to meet that responsibility.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Statement. When we had the Statement on the Pitt report in June, I promised that this rather wonderful, glossy book would form part of my holiday reading. I have to say that I did take it with me and indeed I read some of it; the pictures are very nice indeed. As a result, my opinion of the report is even higher than it was. It is a superb report and we should welcome the fact that the Government are now responding to it.

First, I understand that the government action plan is being published today. Is that the document which will set out the responses to the 92 recommendations made in the report? The Minister has nodded. Secondly, I welcome the six approved surface water management plans, particularly those for Leeds, Hull and Warrington, but how many authorities were invited to put forward proposals and how many applied to be included in the list, given that there are only six on it? Thirdly, what hope do other applicant authorities have that they will be added in the next year or two? Finally, is the extra £15 million, which is not very much money, intended for the six authorities that are to go ahead with their surface water management plans or is some of it for other local authorities which are now rightly and in a welcome way being given the responsibility to carry out a great deal of their own flood management work?

My Lords, the £15 million will help fund additional activities, primarily within the 50 county and unitary authorities that we consider most at risk of surface water flooding. I do not know how many authorities applied but I shall find out and let the noble Lord know. I understand that many local authorities will wish to take advantage of this initiative and we will make clear the programme for roll-out to further authorities.

The associated report that we published today contains a response to all the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s review. Considerable work needs to be undertaken and we will issue further guidance and advice. Alongside the announcement today, a detailed letter has been sent to the council leaders of the relevant local authorities setting out the action that needs to be taken by local government, and we will provide a great deal more information in the future. This is a good example of where we are learning from experience. We understand the critical leadership role of local government, not only in terms of what it has to do itself but in terms of its partnership work with other agencies, local businesses and community groups, to ensure that if these unfortunate events happen again we will be much better prepared. We cannot be complacent about the risk of flooding in the future.

My Lords, I declare an historic interest in water and sewerage. I was in the Library yesterday to obtain an old book on the underground rivers of London, following the decision of the mayor to open them all up, and suddenly wondered why, if you can have underground erosion, you cannot have underground flooding too. Has this issue been considered quite seriously?

My Lords, I cannot claim to be an expert on underground rivers and underground river flooding, although I am interested in the underground rivers of London, as are many other noble Lords. If underground rivers flood they are quite likely to have an impact, just as overground rivers, if I may describe them in that way, have an impact when they flood. Part of the work being undertaken by the Environment Agency is to identify the risk, and to ensure that we are aware of the risk, that we can mitigate the risk through flood defence actions and, in the event of flooding, that we then have appropriate warning systems, plans to deal with incidents as they arise and recovery plans to help communities to get back to normal as quickly as possible. It is like a supply chain; there needs to be proper co-ordination. It starts with forecasting floods, work that is going to be undertaken in the new centre that is to be established, and goes right through. If underground rivers are part of that chain, they need to be looked at.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that, where new funding is spent on clearing drains, culverts, streams and small rivers, and where money is spent on repairing and building new defences, people further down river usually become affected by the increase in the water volume caused by the prevention of flooding further up river? Does he agree that flood planning should be co-ordinated to include entire areas of water flow, not only those areas which successfully bid for funding?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. That would be our intention. If a local authority has received grant funding for work that needs to be undertaken in its own area, we would not want that work to have an adverse effect on other areas down river. The whole point about having arrangements which give the Environment Agency overall leadership nationally, but with an important role for local government, is to ensure that there is co-ordination. It would be nonsensical for work to take place in one area which has an undue impact on another area.

The issue of coastal flooding has not been raised, but recently there has been some discussion, particularly in the east of England, on the issue of potential works in an area of land near the coast which might have an adverse impact on other areas. At times, these will be difficult matters to deal with—they cannot be dismissed as being easily dealt with—but it is better that we face up to them and that we get as much information as possible in order that rational decisions can be made. I do not pretend that it is going to be easy in all cases.