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Robert Runcie: Spending for a rainy day

New climate change predictions have allowed the Environment Agency to determine with greater certainty than ever before the investment that is needed to protect England from flooding. Head of flood defence Robert Runcie tells Mark Hansford what needs to happen.

Summer 2009 will go down as a seminal moment for flood defence in England. Simply, it was the moment the Environment Agency made it clear that for the protection of lives, property and the economy, spending on flood defence has to soar.

Backed by the latest climate change predictions, the Agency calculated that flood defence spending must double to £1bn a year by 2035 to ensure that protection is maintained for the one in six homes now at risk of flooding in England.

£20bn over 25 years

Spending on asset maintenance and construction must rise from the £570M allocated in 2010-2011 to around £1.04bn by 2035, before inflation is taken into account, it said. This equates to an increase in asset construction and maintenance spending of around £20M per year and a total spend of £20bn over 25 years.

“The objective, our objective, is to avoid loss of life, property and industry,” says Agency director of flood and coastal risk management Robert Runcie.

“The objective, our objective, is to avoid loss of life, property and industry.”

Robert Runcie, Environment Agency director of flood and coastal risk management

The Agency estimates that the annual cost of flood damage to residential and commercial property in England, plus the cost of further disruption, damage to infrastructure and loss of business, could rise from £2.5bn to £4bn by 2035 unless flood defence funding increases.

It believes its investment proposals could save England £180bn in avoided damage and disruption costs over the next 100 years.

“When it comes to mitigating climate change, flood defence is the biggest action,” says Runcie. Now, with the new, more detailed climate change predictions, Runcie and his team are feeling assertive.

Long term adaptation

The government commissioned UK Climate Projections study, published in June and carried out by the UK Climate Impact Programme, predicted that average summer temperatures in the south of England could rise by 2°C by 2040. By 2080, temperatures could be 6.4°C higher than they are now, it said. Accompanying this would be more intense “tropical” rainfall and sea level rise.

Significantly for bodies such as the Agency, the new projections describe a range of possible temperature changes, depending on which scenario is followed - in other words, depending on how serious the world gets about mitigating climate change.

“We can adjust our long-term approach. Whether it’s funding or a technical solution, we can adapt.”

Robert Runcie, Environment Agency

“Before we were on one fixed, most likely outcome. Now we’ve got a range and can adjust our long-term approach. Whether it’s funding or a technical solution, we can adapt,” says Runcie. But for the next 25 years there is no range, as the damage is already done, he explains.

“When we looked at trends and the choices we can make over the next 25 years, the range is much smaller. We all can see this already with sea level rise, the increasing intensity of rainfall, longer periods of flood, and longer periods of drought. Put simply, for the next 25 years the £20bn is needed as risk is already locked in.

“And while we know that £20bn is a large sum by anybody’s account, it is only a £20M year on year increase,” he says. “The £180bn of benefit that our £20bn spend offers is good for people, the environment and the economy.”

Alternative cash sources

But in the cash-strapped Britain of 2009, Runcie knows, alternative cash sources could be key. “The insurance industry paid out £3.5bn in insured losses in the summer 2007 floods,” said Runcie.

“When you offset our £20bn spend against the predicted £180bn in losses it will save, the benefit to cost ratio exceeds 8:1.

“So there is a debate to be had, and that is what we’ll enter into now. Should finances come from the Exchequer or should there be some contribution from the beneficiaries [of flood defences]? Now the information is there to have that debate clearly,” he states.

“There is a debate to be had. Should finances come from the Exchequer or should there be some contribution from the beneficiaries?”

Robert Runcie, Environment Agency

Failure to find this cash would be grim. Around 5M people live and work in 2.4M properties at risk from rivers or the sea and 490,000 of these face a significant risk of flooding. The Agency has calculated that this figure would rise to 840,000 by 2035 if future investment is only maintained at existing levels.

Its proposal is to maintain current levels of protection and to target properties classified as being at “significant” risk of flooding where the benefits of doing so are at least double the costs. This provides the greatest net return on investment.

The £20bn cost of doing this assumes that the Agency will not have to meet the costs of funding defences for future developments on flood plains.

“The scale of risk is that we now have 2.4M properties in the flood plain. Yes, we have planning and control to avoid inappropriate new development and yes, 96% of all applications are currently holding up to our advice − but that still leaves 490,000 already at severe risk and we need to reduce that. And as to the remaining 1.9M at medium or low risk − we don’t want that to deteriorate,” says Runcie.

Further risks

More cash will still have to be found − the Agency’s £20bn will tackle flood risk from rivers and the sea. But an additional 2.8M properties are at risk of flooding from surface water. The Agency estimates that an extra £150M a year will have to be spent on mitigating this risk by 2035.

“Surface water flooding was the single largest component in summer 2007,” says Runcie “And that component is much less defined − five years behind if not more in the way we apply the science and bring together the partnerships necessary to resolve it.

“These organisations − us, water companies, local authorities, the Highways Agency − have all done their bit, but against their programme and timescale. What’s happening now with the Floods and Water Management Bill [now at draft stage] is an effort to make the best use of the funding available,” he says.

“Big providers of infrastructure now have to undertake risk assessments of how climate change will affect them.”

Robert Runcie, Environment Agency

Of course, the Bill is also aiming to clarify who exactly is responsible for tackling surface water flooding − predominantly local authorities, with the Environment Agency taking on an overarching catchment management role − and to make them make resources available to tackle it.

The consultation period on that closed last month and the Bill should go before parliament in the next session.

The Bill should also tackle the issue of critical infrastructure − 55% of water treatment works and pumping stations, 14% of electricity infrastructure, 2,358 schools and 2,363 doctors’ surgeries in England are in flood risk areas, along with 4,000km of roads and 2,500km of railway.

“Big providers of infrastructure that we need to be functioning for the economy to work now have to undertake risk assessments of how climate change will affect them and report this to the government,” says Runcie.

“The government is producing a National Risk Assessment by 2011 and it will want all those providers to feed in.”

Environment Agency: Work to date


Source: PA Wire/PA Photos

Severe flooding in 2007

Between 2003 and 2008, Environment Agency, local authority and internal drainage board flooddefence improvements reduced the risk of flooding to over 176,000 households.

Projects from the past decade are set to deliver economic benefits over time − expected to equate to £8 of long term economic damage avoided for every £1 invested.

Existing defences have also prevented major economic damages every year. In 2001 the existing asset base was estimated to prevent an average £2.7bn per year in damages. This scale of benefit is particularly apparent during major flood events.

Existing defences have prevented major economic damages every year.

For example, in autumn 2000, 280,000 properties are estimated to have been prevented from flooding, and a further 100,000 were protected during summer 2007. Less than 0.2% of the manmade defences and assets that were tested during the summer 2007 floods failed.

There are 38,600km of flood defences, and 46,000 flood defence structures. The proportion of total maintenance spend going on the highest risk assets increased from 55% to 75% since 2007.

Experience from flood events suggests that less than 1% of flooding is due to failure of flood defence assets.

Getting Better

The Environment Agency’s longterm investment strategy includes a review of its performance on construction projects following the adoption of The New Procurement Strategy − Constructing a Better Environment in 2000.

It found that since April 2005 measured efficiencies have exceeded £70M. Cost predictability has also improved − 2007-2008 showed project costs were 12.1% under budget compared with 10.3% over budget in 2002-2003.

Central to these improvements was a core set of suppliers under strategic, longer-term contracts .

The time taken to complete capital projects has also reduced − an average of 15 months last year compared with over two years in 2002-2003.

Central to these improvements was the establishment of a core set of key suppliers under strategic, longer-term national framework contracts to work collaboratively in integrated teams with the new Environment Agency National Capital Programme Management Service, and Procurement and Environmental Assessment teams.

Other smart moves were the creation of a framework board involving senior representatives from the Environment Agency and suppliers; early contractor involvement in proposals; greater consideration of ‘whole life’ costs; use of the New Engineering Contract and the use of incentivised target price contracts.

Going forward, the Agency says its drive for continuous improvement will continue, with it seeking to achieve further efficiencies through the greater ‘packaging’ of works.

It also plans to drive down the cost of project development from 30% of overall programme value to 20% by 2012, and claims it will “consider a range of commercial approaches”.


of long term economic damage avoided for every £1 invested


Flood defence structures built by the Environment agency

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