When it comes to emergency planning, any Government must carefully calculate the likelihood of disaster occurring and then proceed to tread a careful path between warning the public and scaring people witless about calamities that are most unlikely to happen. The debate in Britain in the past has centred very much on the extent to which it is affordable or even desirable to plan for dealing with once-in-a-lifetime events.
It ought to have come as no surprise, therefore, that much of England was caught napping by the ferocity of last summer's flooding, which claimed 13 lives and caused £3 billion of damage to property and homes, many of which have still not been repaired or re-built. More than 4,000 people continue to live in temporary accommodation today, a stark statistic which ranks the 2007 floods as among the worst peace-time disasters to strike the UK.
Sir Michael Pitt, who led a Government inquiry into the floods, painted a bleak picture in his report issued yesterday of the country's failure to grasp the increasing dangers posed by extreme weather events. He even went so far as to suggest that it is as important to plan for future flooding as it is to be ready to deal with terrorism or a flu pandemic.
In a sensible and finely balanced series of recommendations, Sir Michael made 92 suggestions about ways in which public bodies could work together to make sure that the UK is better prepared for what he sees as an increasing risk of flooding. Most of his suggestions simply involve more efficient ways of working and do not rely on huge financial input, which is just as well since the Government has decided to set aside only a modest £35 million to implement the Pitt Report.
Much of what Sir Michael proposes could be achieved relatively quickly - improvements to drainage systems, tougher building regulations to make new homes more resilient, a national telephone flood warning scheme and closer co-operation between the Met Office and the Environment Agency, for example.
But the underlying principle, upon which his report will either succeed or fail, is to demand a change in Government thinking away from a culture where people are treated on a need-to-know basis towards an acceptance that it is better to share information. This, surely, in a country where harsh weather is likely to become an annual experience is wise advice.