Tackling flooding - prevention is better than cure

Two weeks, two major storms. As Storm Barney sweeps through the UK we are reminded of the wider and often destructive impact such weather has on our infrastructure services.

A satellite image shows Storm Abigail covering the UK on 12 November 2015.
A satellite image shows Storm Abigail covering the UK on 12 November 2015.
  • Updated: 18 November, 2015
  • Author: Andrew Wescott ICE Head of Policy

Just last week Storm Abigail left many homes without power, disrupted transport networks and forced the closure of schools in parts of Scotland.

Storm Barney has seen winds up to 85mph. Thousands of homes across Wales, the Midlands and southern and eastern England have been left without power and transport networks have been affected. 10 flood warnings are in place and due to already saturated ground the rain expected over the coming days will inevitably lead to further flooding.

Impact on infrastructure

These storms come just one week before Government is due to announce its spending plans for the next five years.

There has been a strong commitment to invest £2.3bn in flood risk management over the next six years. Government's foresight in investing beyond the current Parliament is encouraging and will help to protect communities and improve our resilience. The cost to the economy from the 2013-14 floods was estimated at £1.1bn, with damaging impacts on national productivity. Natural hazards such as storms and flooding account for between 10-35% of all delays or service interruptions to electricity, road and rail customers every year.

Our transport networks are particularly vulnerable to flooding. Roads built on floodplains or aquifers, as well as urban roads and underpasses, have a higher risk of flooding. Significant flood events continue to cause disruption long after the floodwaters subside, as road surfaces need repairing after the damage caused by scouring and washout. The 2013-14 floods also caused significant disruption to the railway network throughout England. The disruption cost Network Rail an extra £75m in compensation due to delays.

The impact on electricity transmission and distribution networks is also significant. Following flooding, supply cannot easily be restored and can result in communities being without power for several days. Permanent repairs can extend into weeks or even months.

Needless to say, the benefits from the promised £2.3bn capital investment – which will fund new flood defences – are clear.

Only part of the solution

A problem remains however. Investing in new infrastructure is only part of the solution – we need the money to be in place to maintain the infrastructure we already have. Not including the one off payments made during the 2013-14 winter storms, funding for maintenance has reduced by £50m since 2011. Revenue budgets are also allocated on an annual basis, which makes long term planning and preventative interventions difficult.

This reduction in investment means that some flood assets are being maintained only to a minimal level. Consequently the useful lives of those assets will be reduced, during an economic climate when they ideally need to operate longer into the future and potentially in a different environment to that which they currently operate in.

Five of the UK's wettest years on record have occurred since 2000. Cascade failure of assets and networks – also known as the 'domino effect' – is more likely as extreme weather events become more frequent and unpredictable. We must change our approach to managing infrastructure networks, adopting a longer-term, 'systems' approach – one which recognises the interdependencies between the networks.

As part of this approach we should move towards a 'whole life' or 'total expenditure' approach to investment, covering both capital and maintenance spend over a multi-year basis. Spend on maintenance shouldn't be reactive and piecemeal, as this fails to tackle the root of the problem. It should be factored into spend plans from the outset.

If we believe in supporting long-term growth and productivity we should recognise false economies for what they are. Prevention is always better than cure.