Environment Agency quizzed by House of Commons EFRA Committee

On 6 January the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee questioned local representatives and Environment Agency top executives on recent flooding in the UK as part of the Committee’s inquiry into the Winter Floods 2015-16. Present from the Environment Agency were Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive, Sir Philip Dilley, (now former) Chairman, and David Rooke, Deputy Chief Executive.

A video of the session can be found on the EFRA Committee’s website, starting with local representatives and followed by the Environment Agency at 15:38, and a written transcript of the oral evidence session (pdf) is also available.

The evidence session commenced with an overview of the recent flood events and current situation. Neil Parish MP, chair of the Committee echoed the thoughts of Sir James Bevan in thanking, on behalf of the Committee, all those in the Environment Agency and the emergency agencies who have worked so hard through the flooding period.
The Committee went on to questions regarding the operation of the Foss Barrier in York, availability and use of temporary pumps, and how the Environment Agency works with local communities in areas at risk. Attention then turned to questions regarding Sir Philip Dilley’s presence during the floods, whether he should have come back from Barbados sooner following events, and the ensuing media reaction.

The following is a summary of some of the key answers given during the session

On the Cumbrian Floods Partnership, Sir James explained the role the EA will play in the Partnership; hosting its meetings at EA offices in Penrith, contributing advice to how the partnership can best operate, and acting as a key partner in delivering with others the conclusions that the partnership comes to.

On the Government’s Flood Resilience Review, David Rooke’s comments to a question by Rebecca Pow MP were insightful: “What I mean in terms of a complete rethink is that we need to look, first of all, at the historic data we are using and ask ourselves if that is still valid to predict the future. The Government’s review will look at exactly that question. We need to look at our models in terms of how we predict floods and how we forecast for them. Again, the Government’s review will look at that, and we will play a role in it.

“We then need to look at how we respond when we get these extremes of weather, so making buildings and houses more resilient – as the Chairman said earlier, solid floors, waterproof plaster, moving electrics up the wall, etc. – so that, as a country, we are more resilient to these extremes of weather. We need to look at a catchment approach to managing water, which would include floods, so that we work with nature rather than work against nature. We need to improve our warning systems and our mapping systems, so that people have a better understanding of the risks they face and we can give early warnings that are accurate and timely such that we save lives as well as people’s livelihoods and their homes.”

On calculating flood defence investment David Rooke said that: “We need to look at this as part of the review, because it depends upon how frequent the flooding is in terms of the economic analysis that we undertake. If the frequency of flooding is changing rapidly as the result of a changing climate, then we need to ask ourselves whether it is still valid to do it in that way.”

On dredging and the environment Sir James commented: “Where things make a real difference to people’s flood risk, we will do them. I am clear already that dredging is part of that menu, and we will do it where it works and where it is value for money.

“There is another myth that the Environment Agency does not care about people; it just cares about wildlife. That is a myth. I am very clear, as I have said before this Committee, that our primary duty is the protection of lives and property, and I will make sure that we adhere to that. I am equally clear that, if we do this right, we should not have to choose. People want to live in places where there is good wildlife, where the water is clean, and it is in our interest that we can do that.”

Later in the session Sir James resolved to provide the Committee with a written statement on the amount spent annually by the EA on dredging and the length of watercourse dredged annually, going “however far back it is possible to go” as requested by Rishi Sunak MP.

On the split between capital and revenue budgets for flood risk management Sir Philip replied: “I come from the private sector, so I am not used to revenue and capital separation. Therefore, I think it would be easier not to have it, but I do not believe it is something worth dying in a ditch over; it is too difficult to achieve it.”

On local partnership working and IDBs David Rooke said: “What we want to do is to work even more closely with local communities. Where we are prioritising our resources, if we do not have the funding that is needed to fund everywhere, we need to work more with local communities who are willing to pay, who are willing to work with us. We have some really good examples of working with internal drainage boards, where we are looking to hand responsibility over for main rivers to them.”

David said that he would see the creation of new drainage boards as a good idea, and one in which the EA would fully cooperate, but would not be drawn on the level of funding support the EA would be able to provide saying: “It would depend on how they are set up. We have been working closely with communities that want to set up internal drainage boards, and that will continue.”

The EFRA Committee are next due to take evidence from the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss MP on Wednesday 26 January.