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Easter deluge triggers call for planning overhaul

URGENT CHANGES to the planning process to take more account of drainage design in new developments have been demanded following the Bank Holiday Midlands flood disaster.

And reforms should also allow much tougher measures to prevent any future development within flood plains, said experts this week.

CIRIA director Judy Payne said that, although there is no doubt that the Easter flooding was an extreme event, the planning system was the key to preventing many floods in the UK.

'There are all sorts of techniques to minimise flooding in a river basin,' she said, 'But there are barriers in the planning system to their use.' Development in areas of known risk, she added, should be outlawed completely.

These calls came as the Environment Agency announced a wide ranging, independently chaired review of its procedures in the wake of the severe flooding (see page 4).

Five people died in two days when sudden heavy rainfall in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Northamptonshire caused rivers and canals to overflow and engulf residential areas. Damage is now thought to have cost the insurance industry between £500M and £1bn.

Although some flood prevention guidance is already available from the Environment Agency and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, experts believe that more attention must be given in design to controlling run-off and preventing flooding downstream, particularly as houses continue to be built in flood risk areas.

A spokeswoman for the Agency said that despite its opposition, planning approvals were still being given in high risk areas. 'We do not have any powers,' she said. 'But we continue to resist any plans by local authorities for development that would be at risk or would cause a flood risk. Events such as last weekend demonstrate why.'

The Agency has identified around six million people living in homes built in river flood plains. But local authorities are under increasing pressure to build new houses to meet the government's target of four million new homes by 2016. The fear is that land at higher risk from flooding - around 10% of the UK's total land area - will inevitably start to be used.

Payne, currently overseeing work at CIRIA on water source management and sustainable drainage, insisted that local authority and central government planners had to take more responsibility for dealing with surface water. 'We cannot carry on the way we are,' said Payne. 'Now we are having floods one week and water shortages the next.'

The Easter flooding has also put the Agency under pressure to complete its comprehensive survey of flood risk areas in England which began in 1992. The survey was expected to take five years but remains only partially complete with no end date in sight.

Dr Paul Samuels of HR Wallingford's Rivers Group, also involved in work to study and define river catchment and flood areas, suggested that once there was sufficient information available the public should be made aware of the risks they face.

'Many residents have no idea that they live in a flood risk area,' said Samuels. 'If the Environment Agency knows which areas are at risk it should perhaps consider entering this information onto the Land Registry.'

The Agency already offers a telephone enquiry service for the public to discover if they live in such an area, but lack of awareness means that the take up is small. A pilot study by the Land Registry to incorporate all property information on a single database is expected to be unveiled in Bristol next July. But although this scheme, the National Land Information Service, will give owners a single point of access to Land Registry, local authority, public utility, council tax and schools information, flood risk is yet to be included.

Antony Oliver

HR Wallingford is holding a one day seminar 'Flood risk and insurance' tomorrow (Friday 24 April). Call Jacqueline Watts on 01491 835381 for details.

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