Lord Smith: Extreme weather is nation’s ‘number one challenge’

The winter floods have highlighted the danger of building on floodplains and underlines the need to continue improving flood defences to cope with extreme climate, says Environment Agency (EA) chairman Lord Smith.

Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society for this week’s CIWEM conference, Lord Smith said there needs to be a continued commitment from Government and partners to investing in flood defence maintenance.

He also told the audience that more widespread use of individual property flood protection measures and a higher priority given to flood risk in national infrastructure planning is needed.

“More frequent extreme weather is the number one challenge facing the nation. The climate will throw more at us in the future and we need to be even better prepared,” he added.

Smith came under fire during the floods that affected many parts of the country earlier this year. Lord Smith and the EA were heavily criticised by the public and Government for not responding to the floods fast enough.

Lord Smith has fought the claims, and this week said he was extremely proud of EA staff who had worked “night and day from December to February”.

He praised the work carried out by EA staff which included running pumping stations, deploying defences, co-ordinating information for the emergency services, issuing warnings and clearing blockages from rivers “often in challenging conditions”.

As a result, he said, while around 7,000 properties had flooded during the stormiest spell of weather to hit the UK for more than two decades, more than 1.4 million had been protected – along with 2,500 square kilometres of farmland.

Despite his confrontations with MPs, Smith welcomed the additional £130m and £140m the Government had committed for repairs and additional maintenance.

But, he said, in the South East groundwater levels would remain high in certain areas into May, even with normal rainfall levels and that the immediate task is to repair damaged defences.

Looking ahead, Lord Smith added that the EA working with communities and partners was key to increasing long-term resilience to flood risk.

Leigh Stringer

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