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We are in for a wet future if we don't act now

Last June vast swathes of the UK were catastrophically flooded. At last the government seems to be taking the issue of flood defence seriously, says NCE editor Antony Oliver.

One year ago the nation was outraged after freak storms flooded homes and businesses across a swathe of north east England. It hurt civil engineering.
Rightly or wrongly the profession was held up as either poorly prepared or incompetent. Not least as two weeks later we saw new floods strike across the Midlands, leaving tens of thousands of homes devastated by water, without water and without power.
Of course it was a freak weather event. It was a situation exacerbated by unusually water logged ground and unexpected volumes of surface water run off – a rare combination of factors coming together to create disaster.
Yet argue all we like about the precise cause of the flooding, we still come back to a fundamental learning from last summer: That to the public it is a basic function of the state to keep water in the taps, power in our plugs, sewage in the sewers and floods out of our homes.
Based on these fundamental measures, we failed. Yes there was a heroic response which prevented even greater crisis but disaster on this scale should not have happened and civil engineering was shown up as wanting.
It is good therefore to hear floods minister Phil Woolas this week announce a long awaited and emphatic commitment to fundamentally change the way that we tackle flood defence in the UK.
And it is good also to hear him commit £34.5M cash to help implement the changes expected to be proposed next week by Sir Michael Pitt’s review of UK flood management.
“We can no longer concentrate purely on flood defence and control – as we have done in previous years,” said Woolas, speaking at NCE’s Future of UK Water Resources conference. “It’s important we now look to adopt a different mindset for the future.”
The changes announced this week to give the Environment Agency responsibility for surface water flooding and put it truly at the heart of flood defence planning should help to get ourselves geared up to live more easily in a changed environment.
By having a single overarching body responsible for planning and managing flood risk we should see better accountability and a more effective approach. While local authorities will still be able to bring local knowledge into play we should now see the combined impact of river, coastal and now surface water flooding more effectively taken into account.
And through the newly launched Flood and Water Bill, we should also start at last to see government taking a serious response to the changing and increasing threat from the environment.
It needs to as do we. If not there is a tough and potentially damp future ahead.

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