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Viewpoint: Beyond the draft flood Bill

The management of flood risk in England and Wales is undergoing a transition largely in response to the inquiry by Sir Michael Pitt following the 2007 floods. Despite many previous reports and inquiries it was only when some 300,000 people were disconnected from mains water supply that the government finally acted.

Although welcomed, the draft Floods and Water Management Bill is retaining the incumbent regimes and institutions but is shifting the roles of the Environment Agency (EA) and local authorities to enable a more integrated approach to be taken across flood risk management.

Recent experience in implementing new arrangements for managing development and flood risk has shown that even in this area there is uncertainty and conflicting needs and demands between government sustainable community initiatives and the management of flood risk.

As well as these difficulties, the draft Bill poses a number of challenges to the professionals charged with effecting the new approaches proposed. When dealing with flood risk across existing urban areas, the problems are even more complex than for new developments especially as not all of the technical tools needed to understand the risks are yet available.

Assuming new responsibilities for surface water management planning (SWMP) and for sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) will be difficult for local authorities as many do not have the capacity for this. There is a lack of engineering and planning expertise in drainage other than for development control and knowledge about the performance and behaviour of interacting surface water drainage systems is lacking.

There is a lack of engineering and planning expertise in drainage

Notwithstanding the beliefs of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s (Defra), few local authorities currently have significant responsibilities for private drainage systems and the assumption that transferral of these to the sewerage undertakers will release sufficient resources to maintain new SUDS for a decade is naïve.

Implementing SWMPs will be challenging. The current complex partnerships needed to deal with integrated drainage system problems were tested in the recent integrated urban drainage pilots and although these were found to be productive, were more costly than anticipated and in many cases failed to resolve problems due to the division of responsibilities and the difficulties of funding across stakeholder boundaries.

There are promising signs that the EA is now properly committed to bottom-up community engagement in developing better and more acceptable flood risk management schemes and this is to be welcomed and may presage a good approach to its new supervisory overview function across all of flood risk management in England and Wales.

Although the draft Bill goes some way to dealing with the current problems of complex drainage problems, it misses the opportunity to properly integrate the water cycle; an avowed intention of Defra. Let us hope that this time next year we are not having a similar debate because we have drought problems.

  • Richard Ashley is professor of Urban Water at Sheffield University and MD of the Pennine Water Group.   He was an advisor to the inquiry into the UK 2007 floods, undertaken by Sir Michael Pitt.

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