Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 15:06 UK

Tackling the rising threat of floods

By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC News environment correspondent

Catcliffe near Rotherham during the 2007 floods
Flooding left much of England under water during summer 2007

The author of the government's report into the lessons learned from last summer's floods says "urgent and fundamental changes" are needed in the way the country is adapting to the increased risk of flooding.

Sir Michael Pitt, publishing his review today, said the risk of flooding continues to escalate, making the events that shattered so many communities last year "an ever increasing threat".

He added the government must set out publicly how it will make rapid progress, and be held to account, on improving the country's flood resilience.

Waiting for another serious event, he warned, "is a dangerous 'strategy of luck'", and we need to act now to protect our future.

Human cost

The report may be more than four hundred pages long, and full of terms like "sustainable urban drainage" and "flood risk management", but there is also a wide thread of humanity woven into this document.

Sir Michael says he was very affected by hearing the stories of those who were hit hardest by last summer's flood - the thousands who lost their possessions, some or all of their businesses and, of course, the 13 families who lost a loved one.

It is "absolutely not acceptable", he says, that thousands of people have still been unable to return to their homes since last summer's deluge.

While he accepts that drying houses out is not easy, he points out that it behoves the councils, housing associations and insurers responsible, to make sure these homes are adequately flood proofed for the future.

Homeowners need to be prepared for the fact that flood risk will be far wider spread than in the past
Sir Michael Pitt

And he says that is something that he did not see happening as he travelled around the country.

There are more than 90 proposals in this document, ranging from a Cabinet committee to deal with flood planning, to phasing out sandbags.

Despite being the first line of defence for many householders, Sir Michael says there is no evidence to suggest sandbags actually work, and should be replaced with more trustworthy products.

There is, as always, the question of money - above inflation rises in the flood budget, he says - but when asked how much the government should be spending on this, he says: "That's a very difficult question to answer".

'Strategy of luck'

However, he is clear that we simply cannot simply carry on as we are until the next flood event, hoping that we can muddle through.

"Waiting for another serious event is a dangerous 'strategy of luck'; we need to act now to protect our future", he says.

He says electricity and water companies need to raise their game to ensure their plants are properly flood protected.

At the same time the Met Office and Environment Agency should provide clearer and more understandable flood warnings and forecasting, giving clear notice when there is a danger.

But homeowners themselves should also take flooding more seriously.

Flooded street in Catcliffe, South Yorkshire
Sir Michael warns no country can be completely flood risk free

"If you live on the side of a mountain, you're probably OK", he says, "but homeowners need to be prepared for the fact that flood risk will be far wider spread than in the past."

"Eighty per cent of our suggestions can be carried out without extra cost", he adds. "We just have to think differently".

Speaking this afternoon in the House of Commons, the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, says money is being set aside for the priorities in the report, and there are plans for a national flood exercise to test the systems in place.

But he warned, no country can be completely flood risk free.

Much of the damage was caused last year by an excessive amount of rainwater which simply overwhelmed the drains - but money is likely to be a key concern in dealing with this.

Creating a sewage system which would adequately deal with the wetter weather predicted by scientists would cost tens of billions of pounds.

There are a lot of technologies available that can slow down the progress of rain from cloud to drain - anything from water butts to permeable paving material that absorbs the rain before releasing it slowly.

But it all costs money. The one question raised but not answered by this report is how much are we prepared to spend to flood proof England and Wales - and what level of risk will we deem acceptable bearing in mind the economics of flood management, particularly for the most vulnerable communities.


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