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Environment Agency on the defence case

Letters

Your news feature 'The case for the defence' (NCE 8 March) on the future work of the ICE Commission on technical issues of flood defence presented a disturbing picture of inadequacy in the flood defences of England and Wales in the recent floods and in the face of future changing climate.

It also implied a lack of vision by those responsible for the design management of defences, including the Environment Agency.

Autumn 2000 was the wettest on record across England and Wales for more than 270 years.

Some 280,000 properties benefited from the successful operation of flood defences.

Around 10,000 properties were flooded - many at locations where there was no previous record of flooding.

There were only 23 failures of flood defences.

The Environment Agency recognises that the floods challenged the adequacy of current design standards, but it is wrong for your Commission chairman to suggest that engineers are loath to design extra capacity into present defences.

Flood defences are designed and approved to policy guidance issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) and the practitioner must work within the constraints of this guidance.

Strategic defence options with extra capacity - such as washlands are considered where appropriate. However, if these do not fit the cost/ benefit rule, they will not be built.

In its recent report to the Government, on lessons from the autumn 2000 floods, the Agency has recommended that these investment rules are revised to enable a more sustainable approach to be adopted for the development of defences in response to climate change.

To support this more sustainable approach, catchment flood management plans are being introduced by MAFF and the Agency. Work on five pilot catchments is under way. MAFF and the Agency have also combined their resources to launch a new R& D programme to develop the design tools and techniques needed by practitioners.

It is of course not practicable to build defences against all flood risk. Other initiatives are under way to limit the impact of extreme floods on property.

These include the introduction of demountable flood defences and - with DETR and the insurance and building industries - of formal requirements on flood resistance of properties in flood risk areas.

The Agency is keen to input its vision into the work of the ICE Commission. I also believe that the Commission needs to focus on ensuring that its policy will enable engineers to implement successfully the technical innovation and changes that it recommends.

Sir John Harman, chairman, Environment Agency

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