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The public realm needs flooding engineers and more

Sir Michael Pitt has said local authorities need flooding engineers. But they need civil engineers of all flavours, according to NCE's editor, Antony Oliver

The recommendation by Sir Michael Pitt this week that every UK local authority should hire senior flood management engineers to help safeguard the public from future catastrophic flood events will no doubt raise a few smiles amongst the profession.

"Local authorities have been quite seriously denuded of experts," he pointed out by way of explanation to the Environment Select Committee of MPs.

Is that so...I can already hear the cries of "Well you don’t say!" ringing out from local authority engineering offices around the UK.

OK. In this case Sir Michael was referring specifically to the need to recruit senior engineers who "understand flooding". Specialists to ensure that future local flood patterns are understood and planned for.

But while he should be congratulated for making this point so forcefully and unambiguously to the House of Commons committee, it is a fact that across the board, the demise of municipal engineering has had serious implications for the public realm.

As past chief executive of both Cheshire and Kent county councils, Sir Michael will be acutely aware that the need to manage, plan and coordinate a response to the increasing threat to vital infrastructure posed by flooding is just one area that local authorities have simply not had the expertise or capacity to tackle over the last decade or more.

He will surely understand that to the list we could, of course, easily add local roads, local public transport, street lighting, etc etc.

To his credit, Sir Michael points out that we need to re-establish this engineering expertise in local authorities. And not just the expertise alone. We need local expertise with the resources and power to deliver its responsibility to manage the public realm.

Which is perhaps why the latest government pump-priming cash to assist local authorities in establishing proper asset management plans is so important. Only once elected members are really able to understand the scale, challenge - and potential - of the assets around them will they begin to value the advice provided by their engineers.

Of course the £15M earmarked is no where near enough money for a task of this scale across the whole of the UK. But it must be seen as a start.

The process must work alongside the recommendations of reports such as Sir Michael Pitt's to first begin the conversation with government about the long and short term value of engineering expertise.

And after that it must gradually and relentlessly continue to ratchet up the pressure on national and local government to ensure the municipal expertise that Sir Michael is not only found and hired but also properly rewarded.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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