EA Chief Executive appears before EFRA Committee

On Wednesday 13 April the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive, Sir James Bevan and Executive Director of Flood & Coastal Risk Management, John Curtin gave evidence to the House of Commons Environment Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into Future Flood Prevention, chaired by Neil Parish MP. Also present in the session were representatives from Natural England.

The Committee discussed this winter’s floods, flood forecasting and modelling, communicating flood risk to the general public, strategy and project funding, local decision making, maintenance, dredging, natural flood management and planning policy.

Below is a summary of some of the key topics and quotes. The full transcript and video of the session can be downloaded from the EFRA website.

Forecasting and modelling
Sir James felt that, whilst the EA should not be complacent, its predictions and models worked pretty well for the short term. The obvious question was: what about the long term? He said: “…after what we saw in December, it is right to sit down and ask whether those models and predictions work.”

“What we are doing right now, in the context of the Oliver Letwin resilience review is, with the Met Office, modelling some very extreme scenarios where we add 20% or 30% extra rain to the kind of extreme rainfall that we saw in the north in December… The initial conclusions – and this is still a work in progress, is that when you do that, the result of which bits of territory of England flood is that, even with those extra levels of extreme weather, all the significant flooding is still predicted to take place within what we call the extreme flood outline.”

Communicating flood risk to the general public
Sir James said that talking about ‘1 in 100’ flood events is discredited, that nobody understands it, and that it may not even be right, given the future extreme weather we may face. He felt that the challenge was now to find other ways to describe risk. John Curtin summed it up well: “A lesson from the public dialogue work was that the public just want to know whether they are at risk and if so what they should do.”

John also mentioned that the EA is currently procuring a new flood warning system.

Strategy and project funding
Sir James emphasised that strategy is about choice. He said that: “The Environment Agency needs to do fewer things better, and we should be focusing on the strategic maintenance and the strategic issues, where I do think there is a role for a national body. Everything else, as far as possible, should be devolved to local authorities or bodies.”

On funding allocation he said that a national strategic overview was needed so that you can make sure that big decisions on big allocations to the most important projects go where the biggest need is. At the same time he played up the allocation made to local authorities (about 30%) and the key role of RFCCs. John Curtin felt RFCCs were an oft forgotten group who are really important at represent local authorities, water companies and other people and top up national funding through both partnership contributions and the local levy that they raise. John said: “If there is one thing to remember, you should know who your RFCC chair is, because they are a real gem in the whole process and they are often forgotten.”

Sir James recognised that local authorities are under funding constraints. He said that the future of funding of projects would not come wholly from either the EA or local authorities but instead from a range of partners both public and private. He felt this presented local opportunities: “The future is increasingly collective and one of the beauties and benign consequences of being challenged to find the right type of funding is that it does force conversations about what really works for the local community. For me a scheme that does not match the needs of the local community is a failed scheme.”

Local decision making, de-maining and asset transfer
Sir James said: “My view and the view of the Environment Agency and indeed the Government is that we should be doing more to devolve decision-making powers and, where necessary, revenue-raising powers, to local authorities and other IDBs and bodies.”

He also felt that the Somerset Rivers Authority was a great example of everybody coming together and that using the powers granted by Government to raise a shadow precept (until such time as it receives legislative powers) of £2.7 million from local taxpayers it does have the resources.

On main and asset transfer he said: “We also have plans to de-main. There are some rivers that are classified as main rivers where the Environment Agency is responsible for managing the flood risk. Where there are local bodies or IDBs that have the will and capacity to take on ownership of some of those main rivers, then we believe it is right to devolve that responsibility to them. We have the power to do that. The EA Board has the ability to decide to de-main.

“There is a conversation to be had about the state in which we hand over bits of main river. It needs to be properly and well maintained. You cannot hand over an asset that needs lots of investment. There is a debate to be had with individual IDBs about the terms under which that transfer takes place and the money that is involved.” (Chair: “You are prepared to talk to them on those matters?”) “We are, absolutely.”

Sir James emphasised the importance of maintenance, “Clearly maintaining assets is just as important as building new ones”, and highlighted the additional £40 million a year for maintenance for the rest of the Parliament. He said: “The longer term the envelope you have to plan the better. We do now have a long-term envelope. We have a six-year envelope and programme, and we have surety of what will be available in terms of maintenance funding for the lifetime of this parliament, so that in itself is helpful.”

John Curtin emphasised that this allowed the EA to build in efficiencies and package work better, rather than having lots of individual projects in different catchments, so it comes together.

Sir James stated that dredging has its place in what the EA does: “I have been clear publicly and to the agency that we will do it where it makes a difference, and it will in many places. That is also provided it is value for money and that it does not increase the flood risk to other people. If we do not do it, we will find alternative ways of addressing the flood risk in local areas.”

He confirmed that the EA had spent about £9 million on dredging in 2015/16, in about 175 locations. He expected to be able to increase that substantially in this financial year, in part as a result of the additional money announced by the Government in March 2016.

Natural Flood Management
Sir James and John Curtin were clear that natural flood management (NFM) is an important component in the flood risk management toolbox that should be utilised in the right places and should be used more. Sir James said: “There is a good deal of evidence that it can help reduce flow height and speed of flow, and can have other benefits too. It can improve water quality and the right measures can act as carbon sinks, etc.”

Sir James emphasised that the EA were taking an evidence based approach to NFM and were continuing to collate and assess the evidence. He said that: “There is enough [evidence] to say that this is the direction of travel we should continue with. There is not yet enough to say that in every scheme, ‘This effect has happened’.”

He also emphasised the science employed in applying NFM measures: “It is not just about pushing trees into rivers in random spaces. You have to be quite precise about where you grow your trees and where you place your leaky dams. Where it works it is often underpinned by quite hard engineering. The Pickering scheme is a combination of
upstream natural flood risk management and downstream hard engineered basin designed to accrete water.”

John Curtin summarised this succinctly as: “Flood risk is a mosaic. It is all of these different bits coming together, including traditional defences.”

On house building Sir James said: “First, we all know that there is huge pressure to build more houses, and it is probably unrealistic to think that we can avoid any building on the flood plain because 10% of England, and large parts of most of our major cities, happen to sit in flood plains.

“For me, the issue is how you manage the risk and how you seek to deter, as far as possible, building on flood plains. We have a national planning framework established by the Government, which is very clear that the default is that you should not be doing development in areas of flood risk, and that if you do want to proceed with development in areas that are subject to flood risk then it has to be necessary, safe and you have to show that it is resilient and demonstrate that it is not going to increase somebody else’s flood risk. That is a sound framework.”