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Environment Agency releases summer floods review

The Environment Agency today published its comprehensive review of this summer's floods, highlighting issues such as complex responsibilities for flooding from drains and the vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

The review, which makes 33 recommendations, is supported by six case studies and 100 internet pages describing the scale of the summer floods and its impacts – which saw more than 55,000 homes and businesses flooded, the greatest number of search and rescue missions in the country since the Second World War, and insured losses approaching £3 billion.

Chief Executive Barbara Young said this summer's floods had tested the Environment Agency's skill, adaptability and resources to the full, but the Environment Agency had come through better equipped to deal with future events and tackle the challenging impacts of climate change.

“What we saw during the summer was unprecedented rainfall – the wettest May to July period in 250 years – and the highest river levels in some places for 60 years. Many thousands of people had their lives and livelihoods devastated by the events and are still having to cope with the traumatic consequences,” Barbara Young said.

“Every flood provides a learning opportunity to examine the causes and identify areas for improvement, and the summer floods brought into sharper focus a number of issues – many of which we were already tackling. Three of the most important challenges are getting clarity on who does what to reduce risks from urban surface water flooding, protecting critical infrastructure, and securing a long term investment strategy in the face of climate change.

“But what Government, the Environment Agency and our partners need to do is act swiftly on the learning points – so people can see that we've implemented actions that directly benefit their lives if they are at risk from surface water flooding and the widespread loss of electricity, water supply or other critical services.”

Chairman Sir John Harman said the Environment Agency needed the help of the Government to make changes in how flood risk was managed.

“Two-thirds of the properties flooded during summer were damaged because drains and sewers were overwhelmed, and there is complexity of who is responsible for surface water flooding. We need a clear coordinating framework to deal with flood risk from drains and sewers, which could see the Environment Agency take on a strategic overview role in England, and the different organisations involved in surface water flooding – such as local government, water companies and Highways Agency – working together at a local level.

“We also need to be assured that the providers of critical public services are taking seriously their role in reducing the consequences of flooding. The extreme flooding showed just how poorly protected much of our vital public infrastructure is – and water and electricity supplies were particularly vulnerable. Regulators need to ensure operators protect critical infrastructure from floods. Incident response plans need to consider the possible impact on critical infrastructure more effectively, especially under the threat of climate change.”

The Government has already committed to amend the Climate Change Bill to require public bodies to assess the climate change risk and set out what action they need to take.

Sir John Harman said because climate change could see storms happen more often and cause more floods, the recently announced increase in Government funding for flood risk management to £800m a year by 2010/11 was a welcome move in the right direction. However, as the impacts of climate change continue to bite commentators agree funding should continue to steadily increase over successive government spending reviews.

The review makes a number of recommendations for the Environment Agency, including:

More than 35,000 homes and businesses flooded from surface water, for which there is no specific warning service. Warnings for surface water flooding to individual homes and properties are likely to be technically challenging and costly, but we should examine with the Met Office whether broader scale warnings about severe weather and potential floods can be provided.
Only 41%, or 276,000, of people, who can receive free flood warnings by phone or text are signed up to receive them. The Government should help us to pre-register more people by allowing us to use ex-directory numbers and the full electoral roll in an 'opt-out approach'.
The public, businesses and our professional partners depend on the quality of our advice and information to make decisions and take action. The extremely heavy demand on our services shows how people depend on our website (four million visits) and telephone (260,000 calls) systems. We need to make sure our computer and technology systems provide accurate and timely information which is readily accessible. We were unable to install temporary flood defences in time at Upton-upon-Severn and Worcester because of severe flooding on the roads. We need to agree with our partners a policy on deploying these types of defences.

Barbara Young said the Environment Agency's response to the tidal surge earlier this month along the east coast again highlighted the importance of the flood forecasting and warning effort before and during the tidal surge event.

“Our response effort was decisive, timely, and linked well to the needs of the emergency services. We worked well with local authorities to give clear messages to the public. Evacuations were well organised.

“We will continue to learn and build on our experiences, but these kinds of events show just how effective joint work can be in the face of an emergency, and importantly how well the community reacts to such difficult events. As flood events become more frequent with climate change, I hope businesses, communities, families and individuals, as well as public bodies, will all recognise the need to become ready and capable to do their bit to respond to the threat of floods.”

The Review of the Summer Floods 2007, including the report and supporting case studies and information on what happened, is available at www.environment-agency.gov.uk.

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