We’re now seven months into one of the driest spells this country has ever seen.
The North West of the country currently has a drought order in place. The first one in fourteen years.
Just 9 short months after the region suffered one of the worst floods in living memory.
This country’s weather really is horrendously unpredictable.
It certainly highlights how challenging your job is in planning and preparing for this type of thing.
But it also brings into sharp focus the fact that although the new Flood and Water Management Act received royal assent back in April it may appear to the outside world that not a great deal has happened since.
Well I hope that today to bring you up to speed on what’s been going on behind the scenes.
It’s important we do this.
After all you’re the people who are on the front line and who will receive most of the new responsibilities within the Act.
You’re the people with the local knowledge and understanding.
Facts that were recognised by Sir Michael Pitt in his review following the 2007 summer floods and facts that I happen to agree with.
From the off I think it’s important to recognise that many of you have already made significant progress in developing your response plans for future flood events.
For example, local resilience forums have completed nearly three quarters of the total number of the flood plans we need. And some, such as Cumbria, Avon and Somerset and Greater Manchester have made great strides in testing and exercising those plans.
But that still doesn’t detract from the fact that you need us to tell you where we’re coming from so you can progress further.
The Act highlighted who is responsible for what when it comes to planning, managing and responding to flood risks.
As you know the Environment Agency have responsibility for a national strategy and will continue their existing work managing risk from main rivers and the sea.
The new Lead Local Flood Authorities will have a leadership role, working with others to deal with local risks.
We now need to move quickly to get things up and running.
We need to make sure we don’t over regulate. We already have new arrangements in place to scrutinise all legislation.
I’d like to see the main responsibilities for local authorities start in the spring next year - including work on local strategies. This will coincide with the start of the new spending review period and I am conscious that you will need the funding to be able to do the job.
It’s great to hear that you will be discussing possible approaches to financing this afternoon.
To help you prepare for the new roles we’re going to start some parts of the Act this autumn.
I’m determined that this approach won’t involve any unnecessary rules and regulations.
I hope we can take a more measured approach and trust you to work with other partners to get on with the job.
As I said before you know better than us what’s needed on the ground in your area.
Although obviously we will consider the need for new legislation within the Water White Paper that
I announced earlier this month.
It is important that you don’t wait until the spring to get going. To help you I’m pleased to announce that we’re making available a further two million pounds to help local authorities put together risk assessments this year. These in turn will feed into your local strategies next year.
On the back of this I’d very much welcome your views and comments on these plans and proposals. Both now and during consultations later on.
All of which will help our understanding of what needs to be done.
As well as highlighting anything that we might have missed.
The Act also gives local authorities new responsibilities for approving Sustainable Drainage Systems, known as SUDS.
We’re looking to launch a consultation on the SuDS provisions stemming from the Act later this year.
This will include establishing some national standards which can be applied by local authorities and developers to suit local conditions.
At the moment we’re looking at phasing things in. This will give you and developers the time to familiarise yourselves with the approval and adoption processes.
Looking at the current timelines it looks like the new approval system could be in place from October next year at the earliest - but it might be better to delay this, for example until April 2012.
So it’s important that we continue to talk to you over the coming weeks and months to make sure everyone’s happy with what’s being proposed.
If any of you have any thoughts around this it would be good to hear from you in the Q&A session after this speech.
If you need a bit more time feel free to write or email the department.
Alternatively please get in touch with us during the consultation process later this year.
It would be good to hear from those of you who have already started work with developers on promoting and implementing sustainable drainage systems. I’d also encourage you to talk to as many developers about them now during any ongoing planning pre-application discussions.
I understand the likes of the Cambridge Housing Society have already used some of these techniques in a small project in Lamb Drove Cambridgeshire.
They used permeable paving, detention basins and even a green roof to help reduce water run-off from the 35 affordable homes built on one hectare site.
Whatever position you are in with regard to this work I think these proposals do highlight the need for you to build skills and knowledge in workforce to better understand flood risk management.
I’m pleased to say that we’re publishing a draft strategy today that will help your teams to do just that.
It’s basically a 9 month action plan that includes training courses for new and existing staff. It also helps you exchange information with each other and work to identify what tools and information might best be provided centrally.
We’ve already been working with the Environment Agency in getting local authority staff trained up. 22 trainees are just completing the first year of their Foundation Degree.
Another 25 are due to start in September.
As well as these new staff, expertise is available from existing organisations such as Internal Drainage Boards.
Whenever I hear board members talk about IDBs they do so in hushed tones.
It’s clear they take their responsibilities very seriously.
From a personal point of view I see IDBs as a good example of what the Prime Minister wants to see happen around the Big Society.
All the IDB members give their time, their local know-how and their skill, free of charge all for the benefit of wider society.
They will certainly have a key role to play in the future in supporting the new Lead Local Flood Authorities.
However with all this talk of amalgamation there is some uncertainty over how they will be set up in the years ahead.
I think it’s fair to say that an IDB representing a whole sub catchment area does have a certain appeal. Their size and scale would strengthen their position at a local level. It also has potential benefits in terms of efficiency and governance.
That said I don’t think amalgamation on sub catchment boundaries works every time. It could in some cases dilute their influence locally.
A flexible approach is needed. I’ve therefore asked officials to look at alternatives.
Something else we’re looking to change is the ownership of private sewers.
Many property owners happily pay their annual sewerage bill and think that once the drain or sewer passes beyond their property boundary it is the responsibility of the Sewerage Company. Few realise that they may well be liable, or jointly liable with their neighbours, for the maintenance of the pipes beyond their boundary. There’s pretty much universal agreement that this is unfair and leads to poor maintenance.
The Pitt Review welcomed proposals that ownership should be transferred to water companies, to help better manage the wider sewerage network.
With that in mind I hope to consult later this summer on a set of regulations to provide for private sewers transfer with a view to this taking place from 2011.
Finally I’d like to return to the subject of flooding and talk to you about the launch of the National Flood Emergency Framework.
Unfortunately on occasions no amount planning or risk management can prevent a flood from occurring.
When this happens we need to be ready to deal with it.
We know that when called upon our emergency services, local authorities and the affected communities all do a fantastic job.
But it was one of Sir Michael Pitt’s interim recommendations that we should have a National Flood Emergency Framework to ensure a common point of reference.
Like Sir Michael, I want to make sure that everyone involved fully understands their roles and responsibilities in response to an emergency.
So today we are publishing the first version of the National Flood Emergency Framework.
It brings together information, guidance and key policies and will act as a reference point for anyone involved in emergency planning.
As such it will need to be updated regularly to reflect changes in areas such as flood warning codes, flood rescue co-ordination, public flood forecasts, and reservoirs legislation.
So rather than publish frequent revisions, we plan to convert the framework into a web-based tool as soon as we can.
The Framework will also provide the basis for Exercise Watermark, which I know many Local Resilience Forums are participating in.
So a lot has been happening behind the scenes. All of you are now up to speed.
But there is still a lot to be done over the coming weeks and months.
We are living in uncertain times.
But there are things we can all do to better protect ourselves against flood risk and prepare ourselves for the future.
We all want to safeguard our homes, businesses and families.
We all need to take responsibility in achieving this, and I feel confident that by working together
we can tackle the risks we face. It’s a big ask for all of us, but it is necessary for the long term future of our communities.