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Floods blamed on government inaction

27 Nov 12 A leading drainage expert is laying the blame for recent floods across the country on government indecision and inertia.

The last time flood damage was seen on this scale, in 2007, it prompted the government to commission leading municipal engineer Sir Michael Pitt to recommend measures to minimise the likelihood of any repetition.  However, little progress has been made in certain areas, it is claimed, with some of Pitt’s key recommendations yet to be implemented and some mired in uncertainty and delay.

Alex Stephenson, director of Hydro International’s stormwater division and chair of the British Water Focus group for Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) said: “For thousands of homes and properties facing flooding misery, nothing has changed significantly since Pitt.  According to the government’s final progress report less than half of Pitt’s 92 recommendations were fully implemented with most of the rest remaining ‘work in progress’. Some key recommendations, embodied in the Flood and Water Management Act, have been subject to continuing setbacks.

“According to Pitt, two thirds of the 2007 floods were caused by surface water flooding.  Yet plans to introduce new national standards in England and Wales making Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) compulsory through Local Authority SuDS Approving Bodies (SABS) have been subject to persistent delays.

“It now seems likely that local authorities will have to wait until April 2014 to begin their roles - at least two years behind the original schedule, whilst work continues to clarify Defra’s draft National Standards which have been widely criticised by stakeholders as being unclear and unworkable in their present form.

“But these measures are still just the tip of the iceberg in the upgrading of our urban surface water drainage systems.  As yet there are no firm plans in place to legislate to retrofit SuDS into the existing drainage network and the current proposed legislation does not cover highways.

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“Accepted thinking on surface water drainage has been overly influenced by an enthusiastic Green lobby which has insisted on land-hungry natural features for SuDS, causing concerns for developers who may be forced to reduce available land for building in new developments already facing tight profit margins.  At the same time, natural features present engineering challenges for drainage designers to accurately predict their performance in extreme weather conditions, as well as their long-term maintenance requirements. 

“A wide variety of engineered systems are available which can enhance the amenity value of natural features whilst providing repeatability of measurable performance.  Slowly the industry has come round to this way of thinking.  Unfortunately, in the meantime I believe this uncertainty has caused delays in framing clear and unequivocal national standards that can provide a consistent benchmark for all designers to follow.

“Whilst urban drainage schemes remained dogged by delays, there are similar frustrations for many major proposed flood defence projects put on hold after the government’s swingeing cuts in 2010.  New partnership funding arrangements now require local stakeholders such as councils, developers, utilities or Network Rail, to contribute to schemes in their area.  As a result, communities desperate for updated flood defences such as Morpeth in Northumberland have had to wait longer for defences to be built whilst funds are raised.

“The good news is that the British water industry offers some innovative and imaginative technologies available to provide sustainable, maintainable and reliable solutions to flood defences in future.  We have the ability to solve the problems raised so clearly and fully in Sir Michael Pitt’s excellent report.  For the sake of all those affected by flooding we need decisive and resolute government action with redoubled effort to follow through on Sir Michael’s recommendations.”

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