Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Monday, 17 December 2007

'Urgent action' needed on floods

A flooded village near Sheffield, South Yorkshire
Parts of the country were left under water in the floods

Planning for flooding should have the same priority as terrorism or flu prevention, the independent reviewer into the summer floods says.

Sir Michael Pitt also said the public should have been better prepared for the severe floods which damaged thousands of homes in England.

The interim report urged local government and emergency services to improve their knowledge and practices.

The government has said it agrees with the report's 15 key recommendations.

A further 72 recommendations Sir Michael made are being studied in detail by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Sir Michael called on the government to take a "broad, strategic role" in ensuring the review's recommendations were introduced, but also to address how it plans for flooding - which is "now such a major issue".

"We're trying to raise the priority of flooding, putting it on a level that is somewhat similar to terrorism or pandemic flu."


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Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme if flooding was as serious as terrorism, Sir Michael said: "I think it is. It's obviously very different but we want the same levels of performance and reaction that we have with terrorism events."

Among 87 recommendations, the review called on the public to act more responsibly, for more flood-resilient buildings, and for greater leadership from local authorities.

Yorkshire and Gloucestershire, where 140,000 homes were left without water, were among the areas worst hit.

Responsibility unclear

The review looked at the lessons to be learnt from the floods and highlights a long list of failings.

They include:

  • no national flood emergency plan

  • no clear responsibility for dealing with urban flooding

  • no systematic stockpiling of emergency equipment, such as boats.
According to the report, the floods in June and July led to the biggest loss of critical infrastructure since World War II.

It said flooding is only likely to get worse and society needs to adapt.

"We're all facing up to climate change and there are all sorts of implications for the country in terms of having to adapt to that change," Sir Michael said.

Why can't we build proper resilient properties so that if they do flood they can recover very quickly?
Sir Michael Pitt
Independent reviewer into summer floods

"As the report explains, during May, June and July this was the highest level of rainfall we've ever recorded in this country since the 18th Century, so understandably there were very high volumes of water and big implications for emergency services."

The drainage systems were overloaded, and there needed to be an urgent review of flood rescue as there was "ambiguity" surrounding responsibilities.

"That needs to be sorted out and that is one of our urgent recommendations.

"We need to make sure that the people who are rescuing in water are properly trained and they have the right equipment," he said.

His comment comes days after a coroner highlighted "gaps" in provision for emergency underwater rescues at an inquest into the death of Michael Barnett, who died after his thigh became wedged in a temporary grille on a storm drain as the floods rose in Hull on 25 June.

No blame

However, Sir Michael said: "The report does not point the finger of blame. Anyone looking for that will be disappointed.

"What we've tried to do is look forward and be positive about what can be done in the future."

Mobile phone
Rubber gloves
Cleaning materials
Key personal documents including insurance policy
Emergency contact numbers (including local council, emergency services and Floodline - 0845 988 1188)
Antibacterial hand gel or wipes
First aid kit

The public must be better prepared for such events and act responsibly, it said, as too few signed up for flood warnings and some ignored warnings they were given.

Sir Michael said he was surprised at how little people were prepared for flooding.

He urged them to get appropriate insurance and have an emergency kit in their houses, including such items as a radio, batteries, torch and rubber gloves.

When it came to local responsibility, Sir Michael said local authorities should take a stronger leadership role, including mapping the drainage systems and working with the Environment Agency, local drainage boards, and water companies to get a better understanding of how drainage works.

Although he personally wanted as little building as possibly on flood plains, Sir Michael acknowledged that with 3 million new houses planned between now and 2020 there was bound to be some construction there.

"Where that takes place why can't we build proper resilient properties so that if they do flood they can recover very quickly," he said.

Environment Minister Hilary Benn said the urgent recommendations - including monitoring of specific flood risks, improving information sharing and the practicalities of emergency response - would be looked at as quickly as possible.

He repeated that the government had promised funding for flood defences of up to 800m a year by 2011 - an amount criticised as too low by insurers.

The final report is due for publication next summer.

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