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Viewpoint - Sir Michael Pitt

Be prepared - Pitt's review of last summer's floods focuses on better planning

The floods during June and July 2007 were a wake-up call. The months from May to July were the wettest since records began and the events that followed have been linked to the deaths of 13 people.

From an emergency response standpoint, this was a new level of challenge. The flooding triggered a series of emergencies which stretched local resources to the limit.

The country was fortunate that the impact was not more severe. For example, the potential breach of Ulley Dam and the loss of electricity supplies to thousands of people in Sheffield and across Gloucestershire and South Wales. While the scale of loss and damage was extreme, the crisis would have been worse if it had not been for the dedication and effective action of those involved in the rescue and recovery operation. The interim report pays tribute to those who worked throughout one of the most complex, challenging and lengthy emergencies for years.

However, the Review believes that the country was not as prepared as it should have been and work needs to be done to avoid the emergencies witnessed last summer. The impact of the floods could have been reduced with stronger leadership, better forward planning, greater cooperation between organisations and increased investment.

With respect to emergency response, the interim conclusions include the question of which organisation should lead multi-agency planning for severe weather emergencies at the local level and who should trigger multi-agency arrangements. The report also asks whether the police should then convene and lead the multi-agency response and how mutual aid can be enhanced between local authorities.

Flood risk management issues to be considered further include improving tools and techniques for predicting river flooding, clarifying ownership and maintenance of water courses, the role of sandbags, and the possibility of local authority scrutiny committees reviewing surface water management plans and Community Risk Registers.

It is clear that the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and the consequences of its failure were not fully appreciated. In the light of this, the Review makes recommendations on sharing information, standards of protection and the closer involvement of essential service providers.

Specifically, it asks whether utility companies could more formally contribute information on critical sites, their vulnerability and the impact of their loss into the emergency planning phase. Emergency plans and business continuity plans of essential service providers might also be reviewed annually by local authority scrutiny committees.

The Review has already received evidence, but more needs to be considered before the final report will be ready this summer. In particular, further work needs to be done to consider the costs, benefits and feasibility of the interim conclusions.

Sir Michael Pitt is leading an independent review of last summer's floods.

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