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Viewpoint: Learning from Cumbria

ICE’s Alan Butler on how protecting infrastructure is vital

The wettest November the UK has seen brought home the serious and sustained threat of flooding to the UK − and how it can push our infrastructure beyond conventional limits with devastating consequences.

The failure of just one vital component such as a bridge can sever access to basic services such as food and medical provision. The resulting domino effect can cause the breakdown of other connected infrastructure networks − gas, telecommunications, waste and water supply, making living difficult or near impossible.

With our key utility systems already operating near their limits, there is little spare capacity to cope with disasters. Given the increasing frequency of extreme weather, it is vital we reduce the risk of systematic failure by adequately protecting and maintaining our critical infrastructure. More resilient infrastructure will bolster protection against future crises.

Failure to achieve this will leave our society as exposed to the breakdown of critical infrastructure as we are to the natural disasters that cause them. Because we cannot realistically hope to defend ourselves from flooding on this scale, it follows that we must increase the resilience of our communities to such catastrophes. This philosophy must be placed at the heart of how we plan, design and build our towns and villages.

Prevention is better than cure

A preventative approach, sustained by continued investment, will help avoid the damage, loss of life and disruption that have become the unwelcome hallmarks of flooding in recent years.

The ICE advocates the end of inappropriate development in flood plains, combined with investment in sustainable flood defence works, plus increased public and commercial uptake of the Environment Agency’s flood warning service.

High-end planning must now be employed systematically to deliver flexible solutions which can be moulded to specific environments and communities. These might involve identifying and locating extra capacity such as flood plains to store water temporarily upstream, allowing its controlled release to minimise damage.

The success of Carlisle’s flood alleviation scheme demonstrates what can be achieved with co-ordinated planning, collaborative working and targeted investment. The £38M programme was a direct response to the catastrophic deluge of 2005 which left much of the town submerged and the local economy decimated.

This robust and comprehensive flood defence system meant the 2005 scenario was not repeated in 2009.

  • Alan Butler is ICE North West regional director

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