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Pitt: Tell people the risks

People, not processes, should be at the heart of flooding strategy, Sir Michael Pitt tells NCE as he publishes his review of last summer’s floods.
Sir Michael Pitt is unequivocal in his report on Learning the Lessons of the 2007 floods.

“It is unacceptable that a year on thousands of people remain out of their homes,” he thunders. “The government must show a lead and give clear, unambiguous direction on flooding issues.

“To do this it must make a firm commitment to improve the resilience of the UK within an agreed time frame.”

He continues: “Flooding is one of the top threats this country faces – we should be as serious about the risk of flooding as we are about terrorism and pandemic flu.

“We need to be more willing to tell people the truth about risks, and have the debates as a society so that we make a considered judgement about how to handle them.”

Right from the start Pitt has been determined to focus his review on the impact of flooding on people. Throughout the crisis last year there was a lot of discussion from the various agencies, utilities and authorities involved about strategy, process and procedure while the appalling impact on individuals – 13 of whom lost their lives – was not high enough up the agenda, he believed.

Few seemed unduly bothered that 10,000 people had been trapped overnight on the M5 or 500 were stranded at Gloucester railway station for instance.

And no-one, even now, is particularly taking responsibility for victims of the flooding still being homeless.

Pitt’s “people’s report” on the flooding stems from a career representing the interests of the ordinary public.He is an engineer by training so understands the intricacies and importance of a good practical understanding of how issues like drainage affect flooding.

But he has also had 15 years as a local government chief executive and this, he says: “encouraged me to view flood risk from the point of view of the public.”

It also undoubtedly encouraged him to one of his key conclusions in the report – that local government should be responsible for flooding and flood protection in their areas.

The Environment Agency would retain the strategic national overview but delivery of that would be down to the councils. Local government has the direct link with the public and its culture is set up to communicate with local people, preparing them for the risk of flood and feeling personally responsible for protecting them from it.

“There will be no sharp division of labour [between councils and the Agency],” Pitt says, “but there must be greater sharing.”

Flood engineers wanting to be involved in a national view of flooding issues “would probably best be located at the Environment Agency.

"But if you are interested in solving local problems and dealing with the nitty gritty of drainage and flood risk then go to your local council.”

It is part of a clever, subtle strategy to deal with what the report reveals as one of the major risks to people from the increasing likelihood of flooding as the climate changes – namely building on flood plain.

“Having flooding responsibility will help local authorities make better planning decisions,” Pitt says. “I have inspected developments that have been allowed totally in the wrong place and where the flood risk would be huge. And others that are wonderful examples of how it should be done.

“There should,” he says, “be a strong presumption against building in flood risk areas, but if it does take place for exceptional reasons, the properties must be resilient to flooding.”

Local government has the planning responsibility to make this happen but in the past has been encouraged to take risks because the flood responsibility has not been theirs. With flood responsibility sitting on their shoulders, decisions are likely to be more circumspect and better for the public.

This requires a technical “upskilling” in local government, a challenge in the current climate of skills shortages. But Pitt is adamant it must be achieved.
He is equally determined in his report that forecasting and modelling must be improved so the public can be warned much earlier and transport agencies can close routes and divert travellers so they are not stranded.

The agencies should also be required to have emergency welfare plans in place in case people are stuck, he recommends.

Government has committed £800M extra funding for flooding up to 2010 but Pitt is recommending that that increase in spending be projected a generation into the future.

Equally strategic utilities like water treatment works and electricity substations need to be protected from flood water.

“It is intolerable that an entire county came close to losing its power supply last year,” he says.

This is a reference to Walham substation in Gloucestershire, which only managed to escape flooding last summer through a combination of pumping and sandbags.

The utilities are preparing defence investment plans and discussions have already taken place with regulators about allowing those costs to be included in pricing reviews.

“We have said clearly that the regulators need to take these (plans) fully into account when making their awards,” Pitt says. “It is a dilemma selling this to the public,” he recognises, particularly when fuel bills are shooting up, “but we believe the cost per household will be relatively low.”

Pitt also proposes that people should be told they are at risk from a dam failure, as nearly happened at Ulley, in Yorkshire. They should also know if a dam is about to overtop, as did occur, Pitt says, last summer.

“There is an unresolved dilemma in our current attitude to reservoir safety.

“Insistence on secrecy about the area that would be flooded from a dam breach, so as not to give information to would be attackers, has meant that we cannot be as ready to respond as we should be, whether a breach occurs because of attack or natural failure, and this puts lives unnecessarily at risk.”

When people hear a flood siren, he says, they need to know it relates to them.

Pitt’s 500-page report and its 92 recommendations has gone to ministers.

He is reasonably confident that it will not go the way of other flood reports of the last few years which have just languished on a shelf.

“I know the report is realistic and affordable and I have to remain optimistic that central government will take it seriously and act on it,” he says.

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