In Deep Water
Four months ago, Britain suffered the worst floods in living memory. Thousands of homes were wrecked as many of Britain's flood defenceds failed.
Geoff Mance, Director of Water Management at the Environment Agency, answered your questions on the state of Britain's flood defences.
Why is there so much arguing about increasing money spent on flood defences?
The problem is the way the money comes to the Environment Agency. Government gives money to the county councils to pass onto the Environment Agency for flood defence. They can use it for schools, roads, housing or any of their other services so each year we have to argue to get as much of that money as possible given to us.
The programme looked at defences to protect against current flood levels, but what about the future when levels are predicted to rise further?
On the coast for the last 15 to 20 years we have allowed in our designs for sea level rise because of global warming. On rivers it is more difficult. We are being told that it will be stormier but not by how much. So what we are trying to do is design in a way that makes it easy to go back and raise the standard later as the effects of climate change become more certain.
Do you think that the floods are forming a seasonal pattern? And if so is this the result of global warming?
We don't know if the flooding of the last two years is in response to global warming. We do know that the weather we have seen over the last 10 years fits the predictions of global warming. So we have the severe drought of 95 and 96 with road tankers in Yorkshire followed by some of the worst flooding on record and we know climate change will mean that we will get both extremes of flood and drought more frequently. But what we can't say yet what we have actually seen is climate change.
In the future is there any danger of fatalities due to the neglect of flood defences?
In 1953 over 300 lives were lost particularly in East Anglia and Canvey Island when the sea defences were breached and it was recognised that because of the WWII they hadn't been adequately maintained. If we do not get the money to maintain the defences once we have built them, the risk of sudden failure of the defence and therefore loss of life will keep increasing.
Why is there so little information on the EA website about flood defences and warnings?
We have on our website the flood risk maps so anyone can key in with their postcode and see if they live in a flood risk area. We think within the next 12 months it will be possible for those maps to show whether an area has some protection or not and if so what level of protection.
But no defence can prevent every conceivable flood no matter how extreme. For warnings we actually have a separate automatic telephone service called Floodline which is on 0845 9881188.
The flood maps on the internet are having an effect on insurance policy's but the nature of floods means that they are not as accurate as they are shown. Is any consideration being given to this?
We would be surprised if our maps were having any effect on insurance and that is not being complacent it is because the insurance industry has had its own version of those maps for several years. The maps are not perfect - they are the best information we have now which is why we update them every year. So clearly they will change as a result of the information we have obtained from this winter's floods.
How real an opportunity over the coming years do you think more natural forms of flood defence are, working with rivers rather than against them?
There will always be places where we have to use what we call hard defences such as town centres as in York. However, increasingly we try and use the catchment upstream of a town to try and reduce the speed and severity of flooding by slowing the river down and storing the water for longer upstream. But as with all problems there is no single solution that suits every situation.
Is dredging of rivers ever carried out?
Yes. Where it will actually help carry the floodwater safely then we dredge to keep the capacity of the river at the level we need. But it is not possible to reduce flooding just by dredging the rivers. For instance in York we have been told that the flooding was because we had not dredged the river but we would have had to have made the river 10 or 20 metres deeper to have had any effect on flood levels because of the huge volumes of water coming down the river.
Who is responsible for funding the Environment Agency?
The Agency has two main sources of funding for flood defences. The biggest one which is about £260 million each year is via county councils with the decision on how much for each part of the country being decided by councillors on a flood defence committee. MAFF provide £30 million of capital grant to help with the building of new defences.
Should I move to the highlands to avoid the floods?
Obviously as somebody who understands flooding I have always lived on a hill. In some parts of the country it is a long way to the nearest hill - for instance in East Anglia. What anybody should do is find out whether they either live or are about to buy a house in a flood risk area and then decide whether they want to take that risk.
Why are houses still being built on unprotected floodplains? Does the EA have much influence over planning authorities in advising against this?
Planning authorities have to follow Government guidance. At present there is no mandatory guidance on building in flood risk areas. The Agency has been pressuring Government and it is DETR to put in place mandatory guidance and that is close to happening. My worry is that that will be delayed months if a general election is called. Without that guidance the Agency tries to persuade councils not to give planning permission in flood risk areas.
Are detailed records of past flooding available from the Environment Agency? When purchasing a property, such information is invaluable as I have found out to my cost.
Geoff Mance On our website we have maps accessible by postcode for the whole country which use all our information about past floods and also the results of any detailed surveys and flood modelling we have done. If that shows the house to be at risk then they can contact the local environment agency office to get more information and the phone numbers will be in the local telephone directory or on our website.
Where can we get information from about protecting our own home?
If they phone Floodline on 08459881188, one of the options is for information about how to prepare for flooding and we send an information pack on request.
We are planning a network of Flood defence groups throughout Yorkshire - would you welcome this?
Yes. One of our problems with funding is that if we have five or six dry years as we did between 1991 and 1998, people both the public and councillors and indeed Government Ministers forget about the need to spend on flood defences. So a network of interest groups to help us keep the political message alive would be very helpful.
Have you advised the Government never to build on flood plains?
No we haven't and some people have said that the Environment Agency should have a power of veto on building. We have said no because there are very large areas of land in East Anglia reclaimed from the sea and it is just not possible to say to the villages and towns in such places that they can have no new building, no new shops, no new jobs hence we do not say an absolute no. We do say where there is a choice it must be avoided.
With 39,000 houses required in the South East, much of the coastal plain is being developed and the water table is rising. How much research is carried out into the effects of housing developments on the water table?
Housing as presently designed actually puts a seal across the surface of the land and stops water getting into the ground water so that newer housing does not cause the water table to rise. It does increase flood risk because yet more water is drained as quickly as possible from the new housing into the nearby rivers.
What can the public do to make flood defence a key issue in the election campaign? Is there a national pressure group?
There is no national pressure group on flood defence but in both local elections especially for county council and metropolitan councils and for MPs local groups could obviously campaign on this issue and force candidates to take a public position.
Do you think a more radical solution is needed to flood defense, such as widening rivers and bypass rivers even if this means demolishing homes etc?
Our problem is not in identifying solutions for most town and villages it is just not having enough money to build those solutions and to keep the existing defences in good condition.
Why do the worst floods usually follow the worst droughts?
Statistically there is no clear corollation between drought and flood but if the long-term average rainfall is stable after a long dry period it suggests there is a higher chance of having a really wet period and that is what happened in the 1990s.
If you live next to a river, shouldn't you be prepared to accept a certain level of risk of flooding? Defences shouldn't be a divine right, surely?
Historically a lot of people chose to live close to the river. It provided drinking water for them and for their livestock and could be a source of fish for food. However, we no longer have flagstone floors, we have carpets, we have electricity in the house and the expectation is that people will be reasonably protected from nature. He would be surprised at the number of people living next to the river who actually say to us they never dreamt it would come into their home.
I recently returned from Venice which is regularly flooded. Buildings have seriously watertight defences, which can be put in place when the warning siren sounds. Why isn't this done by householders in the UK?
Where sensible we try to provide protection for a whole community. Where that is not possible then we talk to individual houses to see what we can do to help them or what they can do to help themselves. So for instance we have been known to raise the ground floor in some houses, which means they only get flooded once every ten years rather than every year. We are trying to get Government to change the building regulations so that all new properties or major refurbishments in flood risk areas have to include flood proofing of the property.