Wednesday, 5 February 2014


The Welsh and Westminster Governments need to make rational long term sustainable choices when it comes to flood defence. We in Wales need to develop a comprehensive planning system for our country that hardens our communities and infrastructure against the effects of severe weather events.   We need to focus on flood prevention and develop flood preventative schemes rather than end up clearing up after the flood is over again and again.

This winter is proving to be hard one when it comes to sea and riverine flooding, the persistent bad weather has meant that some of our communities have had some pretty close calls and other communities have been inundated. There can be no blank cheque for flood defences so we need to make rational cost effective sustainable choices when it comes to flood defence whether for coastal or riverine flooding on the Gwent levels or the Wye, Usk or Monnow valleys. 

The debate taking place around flooding needs to focus on re-engineering the whole water system in Wales to ensure that water is retained in the uplands to prevent downstream flooding. Here in Wales, those agencies responsible for our environment need to take the lead and work to ensure that potential flood waters are retained our uplands for longer and flood prevention avoidance schemes are comprehensively built into our planning system.

Where possible we should avoid building in those areas that are particularly vulnerable to flooding or at least when building to take into account the possibilities of flooding. If we are going to build on flood plains or other areas that are vulnerable to flooding then we must use flood resistant or at the very least flood hardened modern intelligent design techniques to limit potential damage, loss and inconvenience as are used elsewhere.

Here in Wales there is a good example of what is possible, as one of the largest flood preventive scheme is being developed in Llanelli.  Welsh Water, a not-for-profit company, has developed the scheme because the town's sewerage system repeatedly flooded homes and polluted the River Lliedi. The scheme involves digging up stretches of tarmac and paving to create catchment pits for storm water, diverting water into the pits from gutters and then putting grass and plants on top of the pits.

This means that water is held in the soil and slowly seeps away or evaporates. The ideas have been praised by the water regulator Ofwat. If these ideas are built into the planning process then we may help to reduce runoff and flooding. Who knows, perhaps the major supermarkets will demonstrate their much trumpeted claims over social responsibility by breaking up their car parks and installing porous surfaces to catch runoff – personally I won’t hold my breath.

The Llanelli scheme is a good example of what is possible, but, we also need to work to ensure that our power network and our communities are hardened to the effects of severe weather events. Those coastal roads and railways that have been damaged by the recent combination of bad weather and high tides will be eventually repaired.

None of this is new, after the bad floods of 2007, which saw the loss of thirteen  lives and much devastation, the then Labour Government commissioned Sir Michael Pitt to undertake a thorough review of the UK's flood defences. The full report, which is now published, makes interesting reading and  contains 92 proposals need to be implemented if communities are to be better protected. It is a pity that the recommendations were not fully implemented.

We also need to take a longer sustainable view and seriously consider the possibilities of building railway lines, roads and key infrastructure projects away from those areas that are and may become more susceptible to flooding. In England recent changes in planning law oblige all new developments to catch water from their own site and prevent it adding to floods, although the full implementation of the law has been delayed by what critics claim is disarray as the government is under pressure from housing industry lobbyists.

The retention of water in upland areas is by cramming gorse into streams from peat bogs, blocking young rivers with fallen trees and creating low-level earth dams to contain water so it soaks into the soil. There has even been talk of changing policies to incentivise farmers to re-forest upland areas to catch water and stop soil running off into streams. Some (in including the World Wildlife Fund) think farmers should be obliged to change the way they farm in order to obtain their grants from taxpayers.

Trying to retrofit the decade’s long legacy of flood-inducing buildings in our communities, our towns and cities will be costly and challenging.  The legacy of building on flood plains (and on potentially vulnerable the Gwent levels (aside from people’s homes and businesses which has been estimated to contain £3 billion pounds worth of infrastructure) will be more difficult to fix in the short term, but, not perhaps as expense as repeatedly clearing up the chaos, misery and destruction that follows every flood.

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