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Flood waters rising up the political agenda

The recent weather related incidents, which caused flooding in the Somerset levels and the closure of the mainline railway at Dawlish, moved the whole issue of flood and coastal protection high up the political agenda.

Many high level visits to these and other sites in the UK took place and pledges were made to increase spending to an appropriate level.

There is a requirement for a different approach to flood protection delivery with a different funding mechanism. A holistic approach is required with a long term timescale so that sensible strategic decisions can be made.      

Interestingly enough, such an approach is currently in existence and it is delivering long term benefits to the inhabitants and visitors to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads.

In 2001 the Environment Agency took the bold approach of offering a contract on a public private partnership (PPP) basis for a 20 year term. Using a PPP meant the flood defence assets would be improved and maintained over a 20-year period by an organisation with the operational skills to carry out the work in the most cost effective way. In the past the Agency had used traditional forms of contract to repair flood defences but this was not keeping pace with the deterioration. By focusing on a 20-year horizon, Broadland Environmental Services, who is carrying out the work on behalf of the Environment Agency, is able to operate on a strategic level which means setting priorities for successful flood defences.The length of the programme has also encouraged innovation in sustainable flood defence techniques.

Protecting the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads from flooding is a challenging job. The 30,000 hectares of wetlands that make up one of Europe’s richest ecological networks sits so close to the East Anglian coastline that that tidal surges regularly push salt water up into freshwater rivers and Broads, threatening to flood agricultural land and occasionally breaching existing flood banks. There are also 1,700 properties in the area, which need to be defended together with the maintenance of 260km of flood defence banks, which protect 24,000 hectares of agricultural land and 28 sites of special scientific interest.

The annual strategy is a critical part of the process and is used to ensure that improvements are carried out in the areas most at risk from flooding. These areas are considered as 40 separate flood compartments, which are discrete areas bordered by high ground or flood walls. Much work was carried out during the first two years of the project, including the construction of a hydraulic model, to ensure the improvements carried out upstream in an area did not have a detrimental effect downstream.

Potentially this holistic approach to flood defence management could be applied elsewhere in the UK and there has been considerable interest from overseas. This novel project’s aims were ambitious but it has done what it set out to do, not least improving over 200km of flood defences that protect the delicate Broads environment.

The project is a successful working model of an alternative cost effective means of safeguarding rural communities and offers a good example of an approach that future governments could take. 

  • Peter Bishop is head of corporate communications and public relations at Bam Nuttall

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