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Cumbria floods remind us that innovation is always necessary

This week marks the first anniversary of the devastating flooding in Cumbria which ripped out bridges, destroyed over £200M of property and claimed the life of one local policeman.

Looking back at the scenes of utter devastation across the towns of Cockermouth and Workington on the River Derwent, you are reminded of the sheer power and potential for destruction that uncontrolled water brings.

And it also again reminds us of the question that is asked of engineers and by engineers: could anything have been done to prevent this disaster? Of course, there can be no question that this was a freak event. An estimated 314mm of rain fell in 24 hours on the fells in Seathwaite against an 10mm average daily rainfall for Cumbria in November. With the local drainage systems overwhelmed, the water in Cockermouth town centre reached 2.5m deep water at the peak of the storm, inundating thousands of properties and businesses.

As I wrote a year ago, no matter how sensible and rational it may seem to engineers, no matter how compelling the cost benefit ratio, our answer to the question of whether anything could have been done must never be “no”.

For as engineers we must always strive to learn from disasters and do better next time around. “Prepare to get wet” is not what anyone wants to hear.

Yet given that the government’s spending review has just lopped £170M from the nation’s annual flood defence bill as part of the 29% cut in resource spending and 34% cut in capital spending by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the message is becoming increasingly hard to deliver.

As Environment Agency chairman Lord Chris Smith told NCE’s Flood Management Summit this week, funding for flood defence is going to be constrained over the next few years. “There will be schemes that are urgently needed that won’t happen,” he warned.

Looking back to Cumbria’s floods, the lasting images are of the destruction of bridges and damage to 1,800 properties across the region. Twelve months on, the bridges have been replaced, property replaced, businesses recovered and the financial costs accounted for.

Yet the scars of this disaster will remain deep for much of the community. The emotional cost of months of community severance that resulted with children unable to go to school, parents unable to go to work, families unable to visit relatives and shops out of reach, has yet to be fully known.

Of course we now have the Flood and Water Management Act helping the flood management community to work together. We now have more clarity of roles. Yet we also have a shift in planning policy towards more local accountability and a massive cut in public funding for both central and local government to deal with.

So while Cumbria reminds us how hard we must continue to work to protect the public from nature, it also reminds us of how difficult the challenge remains. As always the engineering focus must start from the user and in flood management terms that means the 5.5M properties across the UK still at risk from flooding.

Innovative thinking will be required.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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