Five years after the 2007 floods and their aftermath, including the seminal review by Sir Michael Pitt,has anything actually changed? Margo Cole reports.
It is now five years since summer floods caused devastation in many parts of the UK, including Gloucestershire and Yorkshire, provoking calls for action to ensure the same thing could not happen again. Those calls were answered by a comprehensive review by Sir Michael Pitt, which contained 92 recommendations - all but two accepted by the government at the time - designed to reduce the impact of flooding on householders and critical infrastructure.
Five years on, and the country is once again experiencing heavy rainfall, and again television is showing the emergency services rescuing people from their flood-hit homes. So it is an ideal opportunity to look back and ask how much has changed since the summer of 2007.
It was a question that a panel of flood experts was challenged to address at a recent “Question Time” event at the ICE, with most expressing some optimism that the recommendations in the Pitt Review offer a constructive blueprint for the future - although tempered with frustration at the speed with which they are being implemented.
“Almost every lead local authority has lost its flood risk and drainage engineers”
Richard Ashley, Sheffield University
“For the last 20 or 30 years we have been shuffling things around constantly,” said Halcrow flood, coastal and environmental management director Richard Crowder at the event. “What Pitt has done is to generate a great deal of focus on trying to improve things.”
Perhaps the biggest institutional change recommended by Pitt was to devolve responsibility for flood management to local level through the creation of lead local flood authorities (LLFAs).
As a result, there is now a two-tiered approach to flooding in England and Wales, with the Environment Agency taking responsibility for managing flood risk from main rivers, the sea and reservoirs while LLFAs are responsible for local sources of flood risk, particularly surface runoff, groundwater and local watercourses.
As Crowder said: “It’s not perfect, but putting responsibility at the heart of local authorities has to be one of the best ways of tackling any risk.”
Key local authority role
Another contributor at the event, Environment Agency director of flood and coastal risk management David Rooke, added: “Pitt identified that local authorities had an absolutely key role to play in managing flood risk. That has helped to clarify everyone’s roles and responsibilities and provide a sustainable framework.
“Local authorities are responding well,” he said. “They’ve taken their duties seriously, and are progressing well with developing local strategies.”
Cabinet Office policy lead for infrastructure resilience Mat Barber agreed. “Risk management is not just about government, and this move has brought it down to the level of infrastructure owners and local authorities,” he told the audience at the flooding debate.
“Insurers like a good flood. It makes people nervous and want to buy more insurance”
Duke of Gloucester
Sheffield University professor of urban water Richard Ashley is also in favour of the increased role for local authorities. “This is all about land use, so it’s the people that control and manage land use that should be in control of this,” he said.
However, he is concerned about a lack of resources at the local level. “I work with a number of local authorities, and they are doing their best, but there are major issues that stem from the blood-letting that’s gone on over last two years. Almost every lead [local flood authority] has lost its flood risk and drainage engineers, so you now have structural or highways engineers trying to get to grips with a great raft of new regulations.
“They need proper help and they need money,” he added. “Funding needs to be ring-fenced so that they can deliver on these new duties.”
It is a concern that is shared by Severn Trent Water general manager Alan Payne. “Our frustration is the speed at which this is going ahead,” he said. “While local authorities now have overall powers, have they got the skills and resources to carry out their role to full effect?
“I see lots of enthusiasm and wanting to do things, but skills, capability and capacity are key,” he continued.”
There is a lack of funding, so the money should be ring-fenced so that local authorities can bring in more people.”
Many of the skilled flooding specialists that have left local authorities in recent years have moved to water companies like Severn Trent, but Payne does not want to see firms like his given more responsibilities.
“It’s difficult for us to work in the political dimension,” he said. “Local authorities are better placed to do that, but they need to be better resourced.”
A note of caution about devolving flood management responsibilities was struck at the ICE event by Chief Fire Officers Association lead for flood rescue Roy Harold.
He said that his organisation has had to “start all over again” with every authority, some of which were unaware of wider flood risks or historic flooding problems.
In his position, Harold can see variations in attitudes between authorities, and says it is “up to my local political masters if we do flooding, so it comes down to a very localised approach”.
Crowder clearly agrees. “There is a need for a consensus otherwise there is the risk of going the way of the NHS and getting a postcode lottery,” he said, explaining that the level of flood protection could vary dramatically from one area to another.
Despite general approval among the experts for the key recommendations of the Pitt review, Ashley does not believe it tackles the full extent of the issue. “Flooding is one side of a coin, with so-called drought on the other,” he said. “We should be managing the water cycle as a whole - not just flooding.
“We’re currently stuck with not having sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) guidance, and we don’t have an institutional structure that is fit for purpose to deal with this. Let’s start again and do it properly.”
Barber disagrees. “Ninety two recommendations have been taken on board and acted on. That’s almost unheard of,” he said. “You can’t expect to solve this issue in five years.”
Duke of Gloucester
When Gloucestershire bore the brunt of flooding in 2007, one of the high profile names to take an interest was the Duke of Gloucester, who has since made a point of arguing for action to ensure such events are not repeated.
“We live in a country where 10% of our houses and properties are in flood risk areas,” he told the audience at the ICE. “They are quite likely to be flooded again and again, and very shortly after being flooded they will find they’re uninsured.”
The Duke called for “a firm policy” to improve the lives of those in flood hit areas - “or, better still, to reduce the risk of flooding in the first place”.
“It’s not lack of design ability that’s holding us back, it’s political will,” he said. “One of the prices of democracy is that politicians are much more likely to like schemes that have a quick return. Planning for anti-flooding is such a long term issue that, even if it works, the chances are that someone else will get the credit.”
He urged the design and engineering community to remind politicians not to shirk their responsibilities.
“If the ability to develop schemes that make a difference can be demonstrated as cost effective, it is their responsibility to bring it to the attention of those in a position to make those decisions,” he said.
He also called on insurance companies to act collectively to help develop flood prevention solutions.
“They like a good flood,” he said. “It makes people more nervous and want to buy more insurance.
“They should be in the forefront of trying to save people from getting wet, and in the forefront of supporting schemes that will be politically acceptable.”
He added: “Collectively we should be doing much better at finding solutions and putting them into effect, and finding the means and political will to ensure that, when the next flood comes, it won’t be the usual story of saying there was a report, but we didn’t put it into effect because no-one seemed interested.”