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Sinking Feeling

As the nation gets richer and more densely populated, we have more to lose from flooding. John McKenna reports on a meeting of leading engineers academics and hydrologists.

As Sir Michael Pitt continues his comprehensive review of this summer's floods, a group of experts gathered in a City of London boardroom last week to see if they could be any quicker in reaching some firm conclusions.

Pitt's "Lessons Learned" review will have its early findings published in an interim report by the end of the year, following consultation with groups either responsible for or affected by the flooding.

Consultant Hyder marked 100 days since the flooding by hosting a roundtable discussion with figures from local government, insurance and water engineering. As ever, this meeting of minds ultimately provided more questions than answers.

But, one or two key points did emerge that Pitt would do well to include in his recommendations to Government.

Those present were reminded by chairman David Crichton, visiting professor to University College London's hazard research centre, that the cost of flood damage per year will rocket from this summer's £3bn to £20bn per year by 2080.

This phenomenal increase, said former Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management president and Hyder water environment director Bob Sargent, will result from the likely increase in the UK's population and its wealth.

"The amount of damage will increase because we will have more [possessions] in our houses, more houses will be in flood plains, and thirdly climate change [will increase the frequency of flood events]," said Sargent.

For most present it was the second of these factors – development in flood plains – that caused greatest concern.

Santander Insurance UK chief operating officer Tony Beckwith said: "We seem to be hell bent on building property in flood plains. As insurers we want to be satisfied that other people are doing their best [to prevent flooding], but if someone is building in a flood plain knowingly why are we insuring it?"

Beckwith's comments come on the back of the Association of British Insurers threat that its members will withdraw cover for properties in flood plains if the government refuses to increase spending on flood defences (analysis last week).

Havant Borough Council environmental officer and Local Government Association (LGA) member Colin Rowland reminded Beckwith of the Government's aggressive targets for building new homes and that in many areas, especially the south east, flood plains were the only non-green belt areas of land to build on. One third of the government's planned new homes in the South East are on flood plains, said LGA policy consultant Vanessa Goodchild-Bradley.

"For example," said Rowland, "The area Portsmouth City Council is mostly flood plain, but the council has a target for another 80,000 homes."

However, Chrichton pointed out that there were many areas, especially in Hull, where flooding occurred in areas outside of flood plains. Sargent added there were ways around the problem of building in flood-prone areas.

"There's ways that you can build in flood areas that don't cause damage," said Sargent.

"It's not necessarily a problem but you need to design accordingly."

The overriding message was that while more money for flood defences would be welcome and it would be preferable to limit construction on flood plains, the need for leadership on flooding issues was paramount.

Who should do this was also a hot topic of discussion. Certainly as far as urban drainage was concerned, Sargent and Hyder Bettridge Turner & Partners technical director Richard Bettridge felt local authorities were best placed to coordinate stakeholders.

However, Goodchild-Bradley said she felt local authorities lacked the resources to coordinate planners, water companies and highways authorities.

Rowland added that following spending cuts announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, areas such as drainage maintenance may be further cut.

"I think there's an argument for more coordination at a national level," he added.

Ultimately, said Sargent, the challenge of preventing and mitigating the effects of flooding is political rather than scientific.

The Department for Environment, Food & Environmental Affairs pilot schemes on flooding were welcome in their attempts to improve the links between the Environment Agency, water companies and local authorities, he said. But urgent action is needed at a national level.

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