The catastrophic and largely unprecedented flooding across the UK this summer has left Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young in no doubt about the challenges facing her organisation.
It is not just about throwing money at the problem and building more defences, she says. Real changes in thinking and political priority are needed to push adaption to climate change rapidly up the national agenda.
"I don't think that the UK can afford to be flood proofed to point that no flood will ever happen," she explains. "But I think that we can be flood proofed better than we are."
That said, the extra £200M promised by government for flood defence in July is, she says, is very welcome "real new money," she says. But she points out that it doesn't kick in for three years and that it is unclear how much of the cash that Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will allocate to the Agency.
"We're pressing to know soon – not just to know what we are going to get in three years time but also what we will get next year and the year after," she explains. "To spend a lot more money in year three you have got to have worked up plans in years one and two and they cost money to work up."
And make no mistake, despite her flood defence budget steadily climbing in the seven years since she joined the Agency, Young wants as much to invest as possible.
"We want all of it – whether we get all of it is another matter," says Young in the typically determined manner of an experienced political operator. "We are aware of a backlog of work needed to defend vulnerable communities and if we were to spend at £200M a year extra for quite a number of years we would begin to work that backlog off.
While the Agency always needs more cash for maintenance, she says the recent floods, demonstrate the value of work the Agency is doing to reassess standards which apply to flood defences.
"You would imagine that, as most of our assets are in fair condition, then in a severe flood they would fall over – they never do," she explains. "Less than 1% of floods are caused by asset failure. So there is something about the way we categorise our assets that needs to be reviewed. What is a fit for purpose asset quality?"
As the debate over whether we should be designing to defend against 1 in 200, 300, even 1 in 1,000 year events continues, Young is adamant that business as usual is not an option. The world and its climate is changing, she says. Adapting to this new reality must be at the heart of all future flood defence policy and that means investing early to prevent future disasters.
“Stern said pay up front because downstream it will cost more," she says referring to the recent Treasury backed report into adapting to climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern. "The flood schemes we fund now repay their investment six times over. Mopping up costs far more than building the schemes but the trouble is that while government pays the building costs it is the public and insurance industry that pay for the mop up."
This need is particularly acute when it comes to flood-proofing the nation's critical infrastructure. Young says this is one the most important pieces of learning from this year's floods. Agency research shows that an alarmingly high proportion of the nation’s critical infrastructure is on flood plain. This includes roads, railways, electricity distribution stations, sewage treatment works, waterworks, police stations, fire stations, hospitals, health centres and schools.
"What we are pushing for is that the responsibility that each of these providers has for its own resilience actually gets pressed home," she says. "The sort of event that we saw in July is the sort of event that will become increasingly frequent. They need to think "what do I need to do to defend my vital installation against it".
The summer floods also puts renewed emphasis on the need to reassess and properly coordinate surface water drainage systems. Overloaded drainage contributed to much of the recent flooding.
"At the moment the responsibility is spread widely. Local authorities developers, rail and road operators and water companies all have an involvement. As a result there is no coordination in planning," she says.
Young believes there should be a national coordinator for surface water and river flood defence plans. – a role that she is happy to take. But she points out that there is also a role for local authorities in tackling local and regional surface water issues.
"It's about getting a view on how these systems work – how they all fit together," she explains. "How do the drains in the urban setting fit with the sewers from the water companies, the road drains provided by the highway authority? How does the water run around and where are the hot spots."
Increased use of sustainable drainage design is crucial but Young accepts that more must be done to clarify who is responsible for maintaining these systems.
Better urban and rural planning is also important. Young points out the summer floods have reinforced the need to outlaw inappropriate development on flood plains.
Much of the property damaged this summer was built in high flood risk areas over the last three decades. This highlights the need for local authorities to use newly introduced, tougher powers to prevent such projects. "And if they don't," she adds, "then we will."
Overall, the summer floods, were a huge wake up call for those responsible for tackling climate change, she says.
"Everyone has had a huge fright," she says.
Young is pinning her hopes not just of securing more funding to boost defences but also on getting new climate change adaptation policies enshrined in law via the forthcoming Climate Change Bill. Current drafts of the legislation are she believes "a bit thin on adaptation".
With this legislation, the new government planning policy statement PPS25 and, growing pressure from the insurance industry, she feels that there is a real chance that proper planning and adaptation will rise up the agenda.
The nation has to ask itself what level of protection can we afford," she says. "You can't ever say we are going to prevent all floods. You could but it would cost a fortune. It’s a debate we need to have – we need to look at what sort of frequency we need to protect for but in the end it does come down to money."
BOX 1. The lessons from the summer floods
1. Large amounts of critical national infrastructure is insufficiently protected against flooding. "The sort of event that we saw in July is the sort of event that will become increasingly frequent. Infrastructure owners need to think "what do I need to do to defend my vital installation against it"."
2. Increasing rainfall intensity and urban hardscaping have left surface water flooding. "We do need to crack the issue of who's going to have the role of overseeing flooding on land. At the moment the responsibility is down to a whole plethora of people."
3. All development on the flood plain must be accompanied by properly planned flood mitigation. Legal powers now exist to ensure that this happens. "Local authorities have really got to carry out their responsibilities for preventing this inappropriate development on the flood plain. And if they don't then we will ask for call in."