Suburban housing estates are being over-protected against flooding at the expense of prime agricultural land, according to a study into emergency planning in the West Midlands.
A report by the Institution of Civil Engineers accuses the Government, public agencies and councils of falsely raising expectations by suggesting all homes can be saved from freak weather conditions.
The document is critical of “over-zealous” attempts to save properties on the outskirts of towns and cities at the expense of farmland and warns of growing tension between urban and rural communities.
Referring to last summer’s storms, which ruined the soft fruit harvest in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire and caused £3 billion of damage across the country, ICE says the West Midlands is at increasing risk from extreme flash flooding in the future.
The study follows publication last week of a report into the 2007 floods by Sir Michael Pitt which accused the Government of failing to take measures to protect electricity, sewage, water and transport networks. Sir Michael said the loss of essential services, including water supplies, left people feeling that the country had returned to the “dark ages”.
The ICE report urges the Environment Agency, local councils and Severn Trent Water to take a more realistic approach to risk.
Householders are urged to do much more themselves to protect their own property.
The report adds: “The expectations from some businesses and the public that total protection from all flood risk is achievable must be managed.
“Once expectations become more realistic, individuals may be encouraged to become more self-reliant and take precautions of their own to protect their homes and businesses against flooding.”
According to ICE, a shift in public opinion about what can reasonably be done to avoid flooding would encourage an even-handed approach.
The report goes on: “Current over-zealous attempts to protect everyone in all circumstances can have negative consequences, such as keeping suburbs dry at the expense of agricultural land.
“The flooding of significant areas of agricultural land is having an impact on food supply. There is a real tension between how we value our urban against our rural communities.
“Future land use policy in the West Midlands should not seek to earmark further agricultural areas for flooding for the benefit of urban areas.”
A lack of clarity over leadership and deficient communication between flood risk management organisations hampered protection efforts last summer, according to ICE.
The report urges the Government to “force” the Environment Agency, Severn Trent and council planning authorities to co-operate when reaching decisions about future housing, adding that “wherever developments are located there is a danger of short, extreme flash floods”.
The ICE report also warns of the consequences of building 365,000 new homes across the West Midlands over the next 20 years, with river flood plains an attractive location for developers.
The document proposes:
more sustainable urban planning including the segregation and re-use of waste water
encouraging less impermeable paving of driveways and gardens
provision of more evacuation routes for water in gardens and on roads
using the natural contours of housing sites in order to better control run-off
ICE also urges the Government to spend more money on flood prevention.
The report warns: “Secure funding is vital. The national flooding budget cannot be cut as it was by Defra in 2006-20007 to cover mistakes and miscalculations elsewhere.
“The Environment Agency’s flood risk management budget for England and Wales fell by around £80 million in 2006-2007. Spending is back to a healthy level for the moment, but figures show that the flood defence budget has been cut and then increased on three occasions in the past decade.”
Although the Government made an emergency payment of £14 million to the West Midlands in response to last summer’s floods, the figure failed to take into account budget cuts already made, according to ICE.