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Who takes over now?

Who should be made responsible for surface water flooding and its threat to critical infrastructure?

Back in the spring, the nation was getting ready for Wimbledon and what was widely predicted to be a very hot summer, temperatures on par with 2003.

Unfortunately, the weather had other plans, and on two separate occasions the heavens opened, bringing unprecedented mayhem across the country, exposing a legacy of bad planning and a nation unprepared for extreme events.

The rising waters brought particular devastation to Hull, Sheffield, Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Rotherham. According to the Environment Agency, which released its report into the summer floods last week, the rain broke records.

Agency director of water management David King described it as the wettest May to July since records began in 1766.

"Sheffield recorded 4 inches (102mm) in 24 hours, while the South Midlands recorded four times the average July rainfall in 24 hours," he said, speaking at the launch of the Agency's report on the summer floods last week.

Flood levels were higher than the infamous 1947 floods, when downpours coupled with rapidly melting snow and ice from the harsh winter brought chaos to vast tracts of the country.

In 1947, flood waters came from burst rivers. In 2007, two-thirds of the flood water came from surface runoff with nowhere to go. At the moment, no single body has responsibility for surface water flooding, and this deficiency was cruelly exposed over the summer.

We live in a different world to 1947, but many of the technological advancements we take for granted now were amongst the first to be at risk.

The Walham electricity substation in Gloucestershire was saved only by the heroic efforts of the emergency services and Army. If Walham had been lost, power would have been cut to 500,000 people. Should the Ulley Dam in Yorkshire have collapsed, the wave of water could have knocked out a high-pressure gas main, causing a significant explosion. The Mythe water treatment works in Gloucestershire was knocked-out, cutting drinking water to 130,000 people.

"It is not the way to protect critical infrastructure," said King. "Not enough was done by the utilities – the floods show that. There is the opportunity for a step-change."

The Agency wants greater investment in flood defence and mitigation – £1bn per year rather than the Government's promised £800M per year by 2011. But over and above this, it wants a body – possibly itself – to sort out who is responsible for surface water in individually designated area, and then hand decisions on the best ways to deal with the water over to the local authority.

"We do not want to make decisions about re-shaping Hull [for example]; that has to be done by the local authority," said Agency chief executive Barbara Young at the launch of the report.

One weapon the Agency is happy to use is insurance. If this cover is unavailable, this can dissuade development in vulnerable areas. Young said that the bulk of properties affected were built between the 1950s and 1970s, representing a generation of building in vulnerable areas.

"But some sites are complex, particularly water sites which have to be near a river. We want to ensure utilities take action. We want legislation brought into the Climate Change Bill to force action. We need to look at public services, and who should have to take action."

The dangers to the Ulley Dam have already prompted changes to the way dams are monitored. From spring 2009 all reservoirs will have a reservoir flood plan.

But how resilient do we need to be? The summer floods were estimated to be of a 1 in 200 year magnitude.

"It was the sort of rain you would expect once in every three or four generations. How much do we want to invest to protect ourselves against events like that?" asked Young.

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