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Local authorities set to take charge of flood defences

Local authorities are set to be put in charge of flood defences in a shake-up of government policy to be announced next week, NCE has learnt.

The government’s new approach to flooding will be set out next Wednesday in a detailed response to Sir Michael Pitt’s 2007 summer floods review.

Ministers asked Pitt to provide a comprehensive, independent review of the floods that are estimated to have cost the economy more than £3bn.

His final report in June made 92 recommendations, including placing local authority engineers at the heart of flood defence, calling for a revival in local government technical skills with much higher pay scales for public sector flood engineers.

This week the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) gave a clear indication that the government would act on Pitt’s recommendations. “We have got to get surface water management planning into all aspects of planning,” said Defra project manager for surface water drainage Linda Aucott. “Local authorities are the place-shapers so it makes sense for them to have that responsibility.”

Council leaders backed the move to give them a stronger leadership role in preventing floods, but said that they were underfunded and under-staffed. A major new joint survey of 257 councils in England by the Local Government Association and Defra, published this week, found that 60% of councils lack the funds to fulfil their flood risk responsibilities.

It also found that a quarter have had difficulty recruiting and retaining technical staff. Aucott accepted that councils have a “mixed” capability and said there would be funding for them to implement Pitt’s recommendations.

“Some money will be allocated to Pitt responsibilities,” she said. “There will be a build up time for resources and capability and there will initially be resources for pump priming.”

Aucott was speaking at a conference on SUDS at the ICE and organised by Marley Plumbing & Drainage. She said that the government’s response would include time-lined action plans, proposals for Surface Water Management Plans (SWMPs) and a policy document for surface water drainage, including SUDS.

She added that legislation to enforce the new approach would be contained in the Floods & Water Bill, as draft of which will be published in April. Aucott hinted that the Environment Agency would retain a top level flood defence role, with responsibility for strategic flood risk assessments.

“The thinking now is that these will become compulsory high level assessments covering large areas and will identify the need for SWMPs.” This week the Agency cemented its role in flood planning, announcing a raft of projects in England that are likely to benefit from £20M of funding to be brought forward from 2010/11 to 2009/10.

The move was set out in last month’s pre-Budget report. Schemes that have been given the provisional go-ahead to start in 2009/10 include: a flood risk management plan for Sheffield, sea defence improvements for Deal in Kent, and two pumping stations plus a replacement tidal sluice in east London.

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