(1) Mr Harwood explained that the report only related to the heavy flooding event of Thursday, 19 December 2019, which had continued into the weekend. Further debriefs had taken place following Storms Ciara and Dennis as well as the more recent event of 5 and 6 March 2020. These would be reported in due course.
(2) Mr Harwood continued that it was vital to capture learning from the responses and to assimilate that learning as expeditiously as possible as this was a time of unprecedented challenge in terms of climate change and rate of urbanisation in Kent as well as significant changes in land use on agricultural land and in the suburbs. This change required speedy adaptation.
(3) Mr Harwood turned to the report itself, saying that the KCC internal debrief had involved officers from Highways Drainage, Emergency Planning and Adult Social Care and Health amongst others.
(4) Mr Harwood said that the debrief had concluded that amongst the things that had gone well was that close links had been established very quickly (and maintained thereafter) between the KCC Emergency Centre and the Environment Agency Incident Room. These links had notably enhanced the response. There had not been a large and cumbersome Command and Control system. The model followed had, instead, been one of single agency command supplemented by regular inter-agency discussion. The telephone lines had been left permanently open, enabling immediate response to any issue that arose, unencumbered by any layer of bureaucracy.
(5) There had also been effective co-ordination between KCC and the Kent Fire and Rescue Service (including the Tactical Adviser Water and Flooding) which had enhanced the effectiveness of the response. This had been successful across the whole county where surface water was an issue and not just in the flooding hotspots. The benefit had been that it had enabled a proactive response which, in many cases, had headed-off flooding to properties before it happened.
(6) Mr Harwood drew attention to the finding that enhanced flood storage at the recently restored semi-natural land on the River Len floodplain upstream of Maidstone town centre had significantly ameliorated downstream impacts from increased flows. This underlined the message given earlier in the meeting on the value of NFM. Water from the River Len had been released at the optimum times in order to ensure that Maidstone itself was not impacted by flooding from the Len and Medway.
(7) Mr Harwood replied to a question from Mrs Brown by saying that the draft debrief reports on Storms Ciara and Dennis were close to being ready. As soon as they were, they would be sent to Members of the Committee. Any additional comments would be assimilated into the final version of the debrief reports.
(8) Mr Bowles said that he concurred with the recommendations in the debrief report but warned that drafting them did not necessarily mean that they would be put into place. He noted that one of them was that “Specific locations where ditches and other flood attenuation features have been lost to be identified and communicated to Flood Risk Management Team.” He asked how this would be carried out.
(9) Mr Tant added to Mr Bowles’ comments by saying that simply locating such ditches did not mean that they could simply be reinstated.
(10) Mr Rayner placed on record his concern at the risks now being run by all those living and those involved in emergency flood response activity at the Little Venice Country Park residential caravan site in Yalding. He then asked to move, seconded by Mr Bowles the following motion:
This Committee requests the Cabinet Member for the Environment to arrange for a full risk assessment of the continued residential occupation and those tasked with evacuation and shelter of residents of the Little Venice Country Park residential caravan site at Yalding.
KCC as strategic authority for emergency planning and severe weather response in co-operation with Maidstone BC (should she wish) are asked to examine the possibility of KCC purchasing Little Venice Country Park at Yalding, being the total area in which residents reside, if necessary by compulsory purchase, in order that the existing leases and licenses permitting those who reside there will cease to do so as soon as may reasonably be arranged.
(11) The Chairman ruled that he would not accept this motion because Members of the Committee had not had the opportunity to consider it beforehand and did not have the information necessary to reach an informed decision. It had implications for other Local Authorities and also because it had only a tenuous connection to the Committee’s Terms of Reference.
(12) The Chairman then said that, as Mr Rayner had raised this matter, he would write to the Cabinet Member for the Environment in order to formally notify her of the Committee’s interest and arrange for a report to be produced, possibly with input from Maidstone Borough Council, the Environment Agency, Kent Fire and Rescue Service and Yalding Parish Council, setting out in detail what options had been considered and whether compulsory purchase was practical in all the circumstances.
(13) Mrs Brown said that she was meeting one of the Directors of Maidstone BC on this matter during the following week. She said that this was a complicated and explained that the site had originally been for use as holiday homes and had been closed during the winter months. A later landowner had rented out the caravans as residences for 11 months each year without specifying which 11 months these were. It was a commercial premise which meant that Yalding received no precept for it. During the previous week’s flooding event there had been 16 vulnerable residents who had been evacuated to the Church before being placed in hotels. When the Emergency passed, no agency was prepared to pay for them to be returned to the site. She added that she had been struck by the increase in the number of vulnerable people now resident since the evacuation in December 2019. This was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to continue and she would be happy to ask the appropriate Maidstone Director to contact KCC to discuss proposed courses of action.
(14) Mr Mortimer said that he was the Chairman of Maidstone BC’s Housing and Environment Committee. He was aware of the complexity of the situation and the difficulty of resolving it. He understood that there had been some 24 Little Venice residents in temporary accommodation over the weekend, and that most of them had now returned home. He said that he would also like to be a part of Maidstone BC’s discussions with Yalding PC in order to help move things forward.
(15) Miss Carey said that there were significant flooding problems across Kent and that the available budget covered all of it. It was therefore necessary to weigh up the issues and prioritise spending. She would take note of what had been said at the meeting but was unable to promise that she would allocate funding in the way put forward.
(16) Mrs Blanford said that she was concerned that the maintenance of drains was not being sufficiently updated. Some cottages on the A28 had recently flooded. Kent Fire and Rescue had needed to clear out the drainage system in order that the water could flow away. She had long considered that maintenance work was not being undertaken frequently enough and that land next to the roads was flooding as a consequence. She asked whether there were actual maintenance plans or whether drainage was investigated after a complaint had been raised.
(17) Mr Tant said it was very rare for a ditch to be the responsibility of KCC Highways. Most of them were owned by the adjacent landowner, who had responsibility for the maintenance. This was the same for pipes. He suggested that anyone who had seen such an issue should contact him in order as he would ensure that the responsible landowner was identified. Reactive (rather than proactive) repairs could then be carried out.
(18) Mrs Brown referred to Mr Earl Bourner’s presentation to the previous meeting of the Committee (Minute 15/19) in which the discussion had focussed on the maintenance of old and new ditches. The flooding in Yalding during the previous week had seen more water than usual flooding off the land. The result had been that the road had turned into a “river of mud.” Yalding PC had therefore written to KCC to ask whether it had any powers to dig new ditches. The reply from Mr Bourner had indicated that this was a grey area. He had been content for this letter to be passed to Helen Grant, MP for her to raise this question with Defra with the aim of tightening up the legislation if possible.
(19) Mr Bowles said that he had often come across this particular problem over the years and that he supported the aim of seeking clarification from Defra.
(20) Mrs Mackonochie said that there had been no special KCC emergency telephone number. It had subsequently taken 40 minutes to get through to Southern Water. She asked whether KCC could provide a number that was to be used only during an emergency. This would save time, which was particularly important if power outages were being experienced for example.
(21) Mr Rayner said that the 1980 Highways Act gave powers to the Highways Authority to enforce riparian landowners to drain their land or, if the landowner did not do so, to enter the land and take such action as was necessary and to charge the landowner for it.
(22) Mr Payne said that KCC had allocated additional resources for the improvement of Highways drainage assets. The greatest difficulty facing the Authority in this regard was the extremes of weather. For much of 2019, the major issue had been the threat of drought as a result of a very lengthy dry spell which had been interspersed with very heavy downpours, saturating the sun-baked land and creating huge drainage problems, no matter which landowner or agency was responsible for its maintenance in each individual case. This had also applied to drainage systems where the level of risk was 1 in 100 or greater. The challenge for Highways was in developing a successful approach to dealing with drainage problems that were not directly caused by water running off Highways land. The flooding events over the past two weeks had placed an additional pressure of some £2m on the service.
(23) Ms Hamilton referred to the issue of Common Land where the ditches needed to be cleared. In Lamberhurst, the Parish Council was responsible for clearing the ditches on a piece of common land and she had been asked to gather advice on who they should approach to provide the resources for this significant work. Mr Tant agreed to discuss this matter in detail with her after the meeting.
(24) Mr Bowles said that it would be useful for the Committee to receive a definitive explanation of what KCC Highway’s legal powers were in respect of clearing ditches on private land.
(25) Mrs Hurst said that the best way for Parish Councils to get necessary work done quickly on drains, ditches and culverts was to report the problem online.
(26) RESOLVED that the report be noted together with the comments made about the debrief report and on Little Venice Country Park in Yalding as set out in (10) to (15) above.