BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 26.05.02


explains the Government's strategy to combat flooding and announces that from April 2003 decisions on which areas justify flood defences will be made on the basis of population as well as properly.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well the Environment Minister, Elliot Morley is in our Hull Studio. Good afternoon Mr. Morley. ELLIOT MORLEY: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: You do accept obviously the increased risk that there is a real problem here. MORLEY: Oh we recognise there's real problem, I mean, factored in, the projections for climate change, increased rising in sea level, in all our engineering and the kind of investments that we're making, and I should point out that some of the positives, despite all these extremes of weather, we have a pretty good record in relation to the performance of our defences, and also the response of our warning systems and our emergency services. HUMPHRYS: You wouldn't be very impressed if you were living in Worcester though would you? And the trouble is that, that Tony Blair talked about the various reports we've had amounting to a 'wake up' call, what a lot of people say, is well we haven't yet woken up, we've had loads of studies but we haven't really woken up to the real dangers here. MORLEY: But that's not true at all John, and I'm very surprised on the River Severn that you didn't go up to Shrewsbury, or Beauly where brand new defences are under construction now and they'll be ready by this Autumn, or indeed other areas that were very hard hit in the two-thousand floods, villages in Norton for example, and Malton where again, huge engineering projects are being put in place, and I spent the country the last two years going around opening both completed defences and starting new ones. So there is a massive investment programme, and not just engineering a hundred million pounds over the next ten years for enhanced flood warning for example, investment on trying to understand the impact of climate change, long term studies, these are very important, but this is real tangible action taking place resulting in reduced risk all over the country. HUMPHRYS: But more is needed as you have often acknowledged, and one of the problems is this extraordinary complexity. Twenty-nine decision making bodies needed in some cases, I mean, that's just crazy isn't it? You need one authority surely to look at the, at the whole flood defence in a particular system for a particular river, the catchment area of a particular river, that'd be the logical way to do it, wouldn't it? MORLEY: Oh that isn't, that is logical, but of course most flood defence committees are based on catchment areas and indeed we've funded some new powered studies for whole catchment area studies because we think that's the way to go in terms of trying to have a long term plan for flood and coastal defence, but we do accept that there is a need to look at the structure of our flood defence funding, and that's why we had the review, and there is a possibility of streamlining it, and though I should say although it is complex, it has by and large delivered a very quality of service around the country. HUMPHRYS: Well again it depends where you are and who you talk to doesn't it? But you do acknowledge it's got to be simplified? MORLEY: Yes I acknowledge there's a case for simplification as indeed I acknowledge a case there, there's a case for increased investment and funding, we already doing that, we're increasing in funding by round about fifty million pounds over the next year, from two-thousand-and-two to two-thousand-and-three, taking us up to round about four-hundred-and-fifty million pounds from all revenue sources. That's record amounts of funding on flood and coastal defence and that's a recognition by the government of the need to reduce risk. HUMPHRYS: May be a record amount but it's still not enough is it? MORLEY: Well you can always argue about how much it should be spent, although I should point out, there is actually almost a limit to what you can spend in any one year in relation to the engineering projects which are often very complex, which you can't just switch on and off, it can take quite a long time for planning permission, for doing the catchment area studies, and then to put them into place, so there's actually a limit in terms of capital spend that you can have in any one year. HUMPHRYS: But that is going to increase isn't it? I mean as, as we, well as the situation gets worse, and it's not going to stop raining for heaven's sake, so we are going ultimately, we are going to need more money. Are you satisfied that the right way to do is to take it from the taxpayer in general taxation? MORLEY: The funding review did say that the, bulk of the money should continue to come from the Exchequer and we except that. What the funding review looked at was the potential for raising additional sums of money, and connection charge for flood plain development is one, the flood plain levy was another, although that wasn't recommended by the committee I should point out, and of course at the moment, the responsibility for flood defence is shared between central government and local government, and local government raise a levy. One of the suggestions within the report was to abolish the levy and replace that with a precept, and of course... HUMPHRYS: ...what's that mean? Replace it with a precept, what do you mean? MORLEY: Well at the present time, the regional flood defence committees have a levy which is agreed by local councils and that's just taken from the overall council tax take. If you have a precept, then the suggestion is that the new customer, the customer bodies, would have a separate precept, replacing the levy, and people would then see that separately on their bills, in the same way as you have a precept for the police or the fire brigade. HUMPHRYS: You're not sympathetic then to the idea that the developers themselves, other people would say it would be entirely fair to tax the developers, because they're the people who are going to make the money out of these developments, some of which will add to the problem willy-nilly? You don't think they ought to pay for it? MORLEY: Oh I think there is a case for the connection charge and we're looking at the response to our consultation at the present time. If developers are building on flood plain areas, then of course it's not unreasonable that they should pay towards either new defences or indeed enhancing the defences that may be affected by that development. There is already provision for that within the planning guidance, PPG25, which restricts developments on flood plains so I think there is certainly a case to consider there. HUMPHRYS: We can't just stop them building on these flood plains can we? MORLEY: In some circumstances, yes you can. And in some circumstances, the recommendation will be that there should not be development in certain flood plain areas. But you, you don't have to say that there should never be any kind of development on flood plains, indeed you take a city like Hull for example, the whole of Hull is on a flood plain, but it's very well defended, and indeed its defences have recently been enhanced. HUMPHRYS: But just to go back to the question of the individual whose home is more at risk, should people who are at greater risk pay more than those people who aren't because many people would say, sure, if you bought a house knowing that you're on a flood plain and you are well aware that you are going to be flooded every year or every two years or something, then on your head be it. On the other hand, you may not have known when you bought the house? MORLEY: Well I think if you take an extreme of someone buying a house right next to a river, then of course they know very well that they are taking a risk when they buy that house. But I do accept the point that you make about people may be living in a flood risk area and not know that, that's why one of the targets which I set for the Buy Report of nineteen-ninety-eight, was that the agency should produce flood risk maps. Now they've done that, they are available on the agency web-site, people can look at that, and it gives you an idea of whether you live in a flood risk area or not. But I should caution, these are a general indication, these maps are not one-hundred per cent accurate. HUMPHRYS: So caveat emptor in that case. MORLEY: That's right. HUMPHRYS: As far as the way the money is spent, again it seems grossly unfair that if you've got a house in Worcester that's worth a hundred-thousand pounds, and somebody else has a house in Henley that's worth half-a-million pounds, the Henley person is going to be better protected than the Worcester person simply because the cost/benefit analysis says it makes better sense to save those people. That can't be right, can it? MORLEY: No it can't and it's not quite a simple as that. It is true that there is really a gigantic scheme just being completed in Maidenhead, but that protects many hundreds and thousands of properties, and of course, a great many lives. It is true I think that the priorities should be the number of people you are protecting. You can't get away completely from the fact that of course you've got to take into account the cost of the defence and the value of whatever it is that you're defending behind that. I do accept that. But people like Mike Foster have made a very strong case that the priorities should be the number of people, should be people first, rather than values of properties. HUMPHRYS: ...and you accept that argument. MORLEY: ...I accept that argument. BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER MORLEY: I accept that argument, and from next April we will be changing the criteria in the way that we do the assessments to reflect that more. HUMPHRYS: So in future, it will be people, rather than price of property that counts. MORLEY: You can't get away totally from overall value of the property, but I think that the people element is going to get much greater priority, we're going to bring that forward, the number of people that you're defending. HUMPHRYS: Elliot Morley, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.