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Councils face demand to employ flood engineers

Every county council and unitary authority in England and Wales will have to hire senior flood management engineers according to recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt's final report into last summer's floods.

Pitt has confirmed that his final report, due this summer, will recommend that in-house experts be employed to enable councils to lead on the management of surface water flooding and drainage.

"Local authorities have been quite seriously denuded of experts," he told the House of Comons environment select committee last week.

"Our second report is looking at the consequences [of making local authorities more accountable for flooding]. They will need to recruit a small number of senior engineers who understand flooding so that they can brief elected officials on what is required."

Pitt's first Lessons Learned report, published last December, made an interim recommendation that "local authorities should lead on the management of surface water flooding and drainage at the local level with the support of all responsible organisations including the Environment Agency, water companies and internal drainage boards, the Highways Agency and British Waterways."

The interim report said that councils would need to assess and in most cases improve their technical capabilities, although it fell short of explicitly recommending the recruitment of flood engineers.

This thinking now appears to have moved on following Pitt's revelation last week that his second report will include an explicit call for more experienced engineers to be employed in-house.

ICE senior vice president Jean Venables welcomed Pitt's promotion of engineers.

"If local authorities are to be given greater responsibility, they need to have in-house experts in order to be a knowledgeable client," said Venables. Who is also chief executive of the Association of Drainage Authorities.

She added that local authorities would need to recruit flooding experts from the Environment Agency and consultants.

Hyder director of water and environment Bob Sargent said pay and conditions offered by local authorities would determine whether they could tempt engineers from consultants. But he said many in his field would probably be keen to take up such roles.

"It could be quite an exciting role, pulling together all the bodies involved in urban drainage," said Sargent.

"Obviously there are shortages across engineering, and councils won't get the staff overnight. However, if it's an interesting enough opportunity and there is sufficient support – not just one bloke managing consultants – then I think there are many that might be interested."

Decisions on how such a recruitment drive might be funded will not be made until Pitt publishes his final report this summer. Pitt's team is currently in discussion with the Local Government Association on how the recommendation could be implemented.

Pitt also told the select committee that his team was looking at how utilities could be involved earlier in the process of planning for flood events. The aim would be to ensure the protection of critical infrastructure.

This would include making the emergency services aware of which facilities under were most vulnerable. This would help them deploy their resources more efficiently and avoid situations like the closure of the Mythe water treatment plant during the Gloucestershire floods last

Another possibility explored by Pitt's team is the creation of a body similar to the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. This advises businesses and organisations responsible for infrastructure on how to reduce their vulnerability to terrorism.

Such a body would advise utilities and others on how to protect national infrastructure against natural threats.

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