The Environment Agency may soon have a few surprises in store for its new framework contractors. For, as well as maintaining and building flood and coastal defences for England and Wales, in future years contracting staff may also find themselves knee deep in flood waters, shifting sandbags and coastal shingle as part of the Agency's own emergency service.
Agency flood director Gary Lane explains that in the autumn 2000 floods - when the country experienced some of the heaviest rainfall it had seen for 40 years - the Agency, local authorities and emergency services were all working to government emergency plans dating back to the Second World War.
These were woefully out of date as they were more suited to dealing with bombs and air raids than the recent environmental emergencies such as flooding and foot and mouth , says Lane.
Instead, he hopes that a new government civil protection act - due for consultation soon - will set a clear strategy as to who does what and how during floods. The Agency will make the framework contractors a key part of the picture. 'We will be progressively involving contractors in that part of the work, ' he says.
The Agency announced last week (see News 17 January) that it was taking on seven new framework contractors in a bid to ensure that current and future cash is spent more effectively on maintenance and new build.
Four framework consultants were taken on prior to this last year; Binnie Black & Veatch, Halcrow, WS Atkins and Babtie Brown & Root.
Frameworks ensure engineering companies a certain level of work in the long term, so they can supply at better value, Lane says. Prior to the introduction of the frameworks, money was not spent as efficiently as it might have been, he believes. Each Agency region was separately putting contracting and consultancy work out to tender. 'We almost had regions competing with each other, ' he says.
The frameworks have been introduced to make sure the Agency is making maximum use of every pound of its income because the organisation is waiting for a cheque from government that will need stretching as far as it will go.
A government review into flood funding and maintenance is due out in March, and Lane hopes it will include a recommendation that flood defence spending for the Agency - and local authorities that spend the rest - is raised by at least £100M a year.
Total spending for 2002/2003 has been agreed at £394M - a sum arrived at from an average rise of £14M a year since the early 1990s. Considering that a single flood scheme can on average cost £4-£5M, pockets have not exactly been overflowing.
Lane insists, however, that despite the funding situation, much has been done within the Agency to improve England and Wales' lot since the 'wake-up call' floods of autumn 2000. An extra £51M from government in December 2000 went straight into repairing the damage at record pace says Lane. 'All of the defences damaged in the autumn 2000 floods were repaired by autumn 2001, ' he adds.
The extra money was also pushed into investigating and dealing with flooding on a catchment basis using Catchment Flood Management Plans (see box). Some also went towards accelerating feasibility studies for an extra 100 projects, that has seen large schemes in Bewdley and Shrewsbury get the go-ahead.
Massive improvements have also been made in the past year in flood warning systems. 'Out of 1.9M people that are at risk from flooding, we now have flood warning services available for 1.2M, ' says Lane. This includes an automatic call system that rings at-risk properties with a pre-recorded message.
Technophobes can also speak to a real person by calling the Agency's Floodline, an initiative that has been so successful that Scotland's Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has agreed to a similar scheme.
For all of the past year's successes, however, plans for the future depend on what the government decides to do regarding future funding and subsequent administration. Lane hopes that as well as the extra £100M, there will be lump sum cash for a 5-10 year programme of capital and maintenance works so asset management plans can be created.
At present, cash for capital and maintenance is allocated separately and agreed on a year by year basis. An AMP would make flood investment more reliable, predictable and cost efficient, Lane says.
The Agency also wants the government to take on board a new appraisal system for deciding which projects get the goahead. The current system, argues Lane, is too focused on economics and should be adapted to include social and environmental criteria. 'We want to see a multi-criteria analyses technique, ' he says.
This would include the effects of emotional stress, not just the financial cost of repair to land and property.
After all, Lane adds, the driver behind improving flood engineering is not simply about damage costs, but about protecting and educating people. Something that the Agency framework contractors, called to an emergency, may eventually face.
Assessing the impact of flood schemes
Engineers have to assess the potential impact of even the most minor flood scheme on other areas when catchment flood management plans are introduced in England and Wales. They will eventually have to learn to think holistically with the introduction of catchment flood management plans in England and Wales.
Guidance for this is being developed by Agency framework consultant Halcrow. Halcrow's water resources director Richard Harpin explains that the £6M project is the result of government concern that engineers were not considering how changing a single flood defence can affect a whole river catchment.
'There was a worry that we were taking flood defences in isolation, and not thinking of the wider context, ' says Harpin, adding that government was also keen that long term issues such as climate and land use changes were taken into account.
A catchment flood management plan introduces a top level tier to flood management, by setting broad policies for the 80 river catchments the Agency has identified in England and Wales.
Policies for a single catchment may include, for example, that a particular town must be defended, and are decided on by the Agency in consultation with local authorities, private landowners and environmental bodies.
Harpin explains that once these decisions are made, another tier of decisions needs to be taken on what strategies will be employed in what areas within the catchments.
These include deciding what are the most effective ways of protecting a town in the long term - either by using permanent flood walls, or agricultural land as emergency flood store. Flood warning schemes are another option. The strategies are not limited to asset maintenance and new build.
Long-term views on possible land changes within the catchment and how they would affect the strategies also have to be made before the final plan can be taken forward.
Harpin says that Halcrow completed its initial guidance paper last March which was then put out to consultation. It has been used on five pilot catchment areas in the UK to get feedback, he adds.
The final guidelines are expected to be published in March, for introduction by 2005. It is likely the guidelines will eventually be given to the Agency framework consultants to form the catchments said Harpin, but this is not definite. 'They've got quite enough to do already, ' he says.