Not enough attention on maintaining flood defences, says WYG’s Matthew Elliott

Insufficient money is being spent on maintaining flood defences, says Matthew Elliott.

As the government continues to deal with the political fall-out from the recent flooding, we asked WYG engineering director Matthew Elliott for his thoughts on the issue.

Flooding is a complex issue and there isn’t a yes or no answer. It’s also unfortunate that the debate inevitably gets politicised, with a north/south divide being mentioned during recent events.

Currently there is a very healthy six-year capital programme of flood prevention works. This is the first time that this type of look-ahead has been provided. That said, extreme events occur and it’s difficult for people to understand when defences are beaten by these events. Almost every flood defence system can be beaten by something more severe.

Clearly, as a country, we need to continue to invest very significantly in flood risk infrastructure, both constructing new infrastructure and maintaining what we have got. There are concerns that it’s no good spending lots of money building new things if you don’t maintain them. New infrastructure will reduce the risk to properties but climate change will in general tend to erode the level of protection provided.

There are some localities where to actually provide defences is not the most cost effective thing to do. There’s a choice to be made. There is a need for people to be more aware of flood risks and we need to build in more resilience. It’s difficult for people to live in an area where they know they are going to get flooded and despite best endeavours it could happen again.

For that reason people can be reluctant to accept resilience measures as it’s almost accepting that they will be flooded. That can be a difficult thing to accept. We need to use available funding as efficiently as possible to reduce risk where it matters most. Every event cannot be defended against so resilience measures are needed and we may need a change of thinking in some communities. You can only fight nature to a certain extent.

From my knowledge of the industry I would say that there is a lot of concern that insufficient money is being spent on the maintenance element of flood defence. Whilst you can build new schemes, if you don’t give sufficient attention to maintenance you could actually be spending a lot of capital on something that is not going to work for its intended lifetime because you are not doing the supporting maintenance that it requires.

If you asked almost anyone involved in maintaining flood defence infrastructure – whether that’s in the Environment Agency, internal drainage boards or local authorities – I think they would say that insufficient attention is being given to maintenance and providing the funding for maintenance.

Matthew Elliott is Director, Engineering, at WYG