Dear EA chairman, here is your task and key to success

Jim Barrack

Following this winter's flooding, consultant Jim Barrack writes to the next chairman of the Environment Agency with advice on how to tackle the key challenges ahead.

Dear chairman,

As you may already know, flooding is second only to pandemic flu in terms of both economic, business and personal risk to the UK. Our changing climate is sending ever stronger messages to this effect, but so far we are failing to respond adequately in recognising and preparing to meet the challenge.

This is now your task and the key to your eventual success will be making government take the issue far more seriously than it has done to date.

Maybe the lack of perceived urgency arises from the 1:X years prediction of flood risk, where X can be quite a large number, combined with the ongoing immediate demand for so many more obvious calls for investment, plus the rapidly increasing funding of the national debt. But, as has been demonstrated recently, X can be quite a small number (floods having happened in the same place three times in as many years), with significant repeated damage, if not catastrophe.

EA handicapped

We have an excellent UK flood policy but it desperately needs implementation. The Pitt Review and the Environment Agency strategy have identified what is required, but the EA is severely handicapped by a shortage of funding, coupled with limitations on its role. How do we get government to put short-term party politics to one side, accept the challenge and deliver the requirement? The love affair with HS2 (return on investment 1.2:1) compared with flood defence (return on investment 8:1) is scarcely in the best national interest.

Following the 2008 Climate Change Act, the first CCRA (Climate Change Risk Assessment) report in 2012 identified the threat from flooding. In order to deal with this a significant increase in investment is required, starting now.

So, what does the government do? It makes significant budget cuts. We can deduce that putting on wellingtons and appearing on television is no more than a brief token gesture.

HM Treasury’s National Infrastructure Plan 2014 allocates circa 1% of the total recommended investment to floods.

ICE recommendations

The Institution of Civil Engineers’ 2014 State of the Nation – Infrastructure report presented three key recommendations:

1. The EA and local authorities should fully implement a holistic approach to flood management, including land use planning, upstream catchment measures, flood defences and increased infrastructure and buildings flood resilience.

2. The EA should work with infrastructure owners to agree the standards of resilience required to maintain and operate infrastructure networks. This should include agreed levels of service during severe weather events.

3. The government should provide the longer-term certainty needed by committing to a long-term capital and maintenance programme for flood management which protects funding beyond current plans.

Disaster looms

From someone who has spent the last 10 years tackling the challenges of flood defence and resilience, this is a call for you to make strong representation to our political leaders urging them to take the threat of flooding seriously and place it very near the top of the national investment list before it is too late. Failure to do so is quite likely to mean disaster on a huge scale. The dramatic increase in the frequency of mobilisation of the Thames Barrier is but one pertinent warning.

Yours faithfully

Jim W Barrack, MICE consultant

PS By the way, the EU does not allow us to dredge our rivers or build embankments.