Analysis: Pitt Review’s flood findings

Sir Michael Pitt has published his final review into last summer's devastating floods. Sally Nash discusses some alarming findings in the report, and analyses the implications for the industry

The floods in June and July last year left 13 dead, forced thousands from their homes and caused £3B-worth of damage. Yorkshire and the Humber, the Midlands and south-west England were among the worst-hit regions following the wettest May to July on record.

So who was to blame for the obvious failings that occurred? Sir Michael Pitt, in his recently published final review into last year’s emergency, did not point the finger at any one particular body or organisation. Yet, in his list of almost 100 recommendations, water utilities – along with the Environment Agency (EA), the government and local authorities – have their part to play in learning the lessons from the crisis. Pitt’s in-depth independent investigation revealed some alarming findings:

  • A lack of clarity about roles and responsibility (for example drainage systems)
  • A failure to share information and plan for emergencies on a local level
  • A failure to safeguard key sites such as water treatment works. Hundreds of thousands of homes were left without clean water for more than a week after the Mythe treatment works was inundated

Pitt wants a beefed up role for the EA and local authorities. His review stressed that all relevant government departments and the EA should work with infrastructure operators to identify the vulnerability and risk of assets to flooding. Local authorities have been tasked with taking on a greater role when it comes to facilitating flood management and mapping drainage assets.

Water industry bodies immediately reiterated their desire to work with local authorities, government departments and other parties, stressing that they were up to the job. A member of the Society of British Water and Wastewater Industries’ (SBWWI) management committee says: “We found the Pitt review a thorough and wide-ranging report and as a society our members would welcome the opportunity to work with all the agencies involved to help achieve many of the challenges presented to prevent a recurrence of flooding on such a scale.”

The water companies themselves have been taking action to make sure they are better prepared in the face of future floods. A spokesman for Severn Trent Water told WET News: “We fully support the Pitt recommendations, almost in their entirety, particularly the emphasis on the need to protect single supply sources like Mythe. We are addressing the protection of critical infrastructure in our investment plans for 2010-2015. So the Pitt review has been extremely helpful in that regard. Also, at a grass roots level, the review highlighted the need to clarify who is responsible for different parts of the drainage system so that there is clear ownership when problems occur.”

Appropriate priority

The Pitt review also recommended that Ofwat gives “appropriate” priority to investment proposals. This comes at a time when utilities are putting together their capital investment programmes which will cover 2010-2015.

Ofwat has written to all the regulatory directors of water and sewerage companies and water-only companies to advise them to use a new analytical framework to assess and improve asset resilience to flooding.

Ofwat’s head of climate change policy, Dr Mike Keil, says that in its methodology paper Setting price limits for 2010-2015 Ofwat asked companies to review the risk to their critical assets from flooding and to identify whether further investment is necessary.

“The message that we are trying to get across is that we expect companies to take responsibility for their assets,” says Keil. He told WET News that Ofwat had specifically asked that companies look at the risks associated with surface water flooding.

Commenting on the final report, George Day, Ofwat’s director of Network Regulation, says: “We will now examine the full set of recommendations carefully and take them into account when we set price limits for water and sewerage companies next year for the period 2010 to 2015.

“We recently published guidance for each water company on how to assess flooding risks and identify the best solutions. We expect each company to show that it has understood the risks and identified the right set of measures to improve flood protection. Ofwat will review company proposals to address flooding risk as part of their investment priorities for the period to 2015. These will be set out in draft business plans to be submitted to Ofwat in August. Summaries of the plans will be made public and consumers will be consulted on all aspects.”

The thorny problem of inadequate drainage during the flooding was highlighted in the review. One of the challenges is that no one body seems to be taking the lead on the issue. Speaking to the BBC, Sir Michael said: “We are looking to localities, local authorities to take a stronger leadership role, to map the drainage systems, to work with the Environment Agency, internal drainage boards, water companies, and others, to make sure they have a really good understanding of how drainage operates and what the implications are when we have the sort of flooding that we have had.”

Sir Michael would like to see councils compiling electronic maps showing all ditches, streams and rivers, particularly around sites that are prone to flood. He said that water authorities and local authorities should be involved in flood planning by developing proposals for investment in the drainage network.

Very pleased

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) welcomed the publication of the Pitt report. Its executive director, Nick Reeves, says: “We are very pleased to see that the government accepted CIWEM’s advice for the co-coordinating role to be given to the Environment Agency, with local authorities taking a lead on the ground to ensure that landowners fulfill their obligations to maintain surface water drains.

“We are relieved that there will be an end to the confusion and lack of clarity caused by the myriad of bodies that have a role in flood risk management and maintenance of drainage systems.”

The Pitt review concluded that the automatic right to connect surface water drainage of new developments to the sewerage system should be removed and urged greater use of SUDS.

Councils appear pleased by their enhanced status and increased responsibilities. Councillor Paul Bettison, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Environment Board, says: “Councils very strongly support recommendations to put them at the centre of dealing with flooding and to make the town hall the lead body for managing the risk of flooding. Councils have the knowledge and expertise to pull together the many and varied local organisations that deal with flooding at the moment.”

But it might not be so easy. A survey conducted by the Local Authority Network on Drainage and Flood Risk Management reveals that about three quarters of respondents agreed local authorities should be responsible for coordinating Surface Water Management Plans (SWMPs), but would require a boost in skills and resources to do so. This view was backed up by eight out of ten respondents who agreed that local authorities are insufficiently resourced to take the lead on SWMPs.

The South Derbyshire region was hit by two “horrendous” floods last year. Councillor Heather Wheeler told WET News the council welcomed the review’s findings. In terms of water utilities, she feels councils – in collaboration with other bodies – need to do more on drainage issues. “This is not just about fluvial flows. It is very much about urban drainage issues and is a case of banging the heads together of water companies and public authorities to improve the quality of drainage, particularly sewage.”

Insurers are pleased that local authorities will have to address the issue of drainage.

David Williams, claims director at AXA Insurance, says: “We strongly endorse the recommendation that local authorities should create a definitive map of all drainage ditches and streams in their area, making clear who is responsible for maintaining them. More than 75% of our flood claims in 2007 resulted from drainage issues.”

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