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Boxing Day Floods, and how wet weather could drown the Northern Powerhouse

By 26th December 2015 Resilience No Comments
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Unprecedented.

That’s one way to describe the transfer of powers from Whitehall to the regions as part of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse agenda. It’s also an apt description for today’s flooding across much of Northern England, including Lancashire where I live and work.

Wet weather is nothing new to those of us that live in the North West of England. Preston, that I now call home, is officially the wettest city in England according to data gathered by the Met Office and Statista. It ‘enjoys’ 103.6cm of rain on average per year, and experiences rain on 42% of days.

But the heavy downpours seen throughout December are something else entirely. Earlier today, the River Ribble burst its banks in multiple locations, as did many others across Lancashire and Yorkshire. More rain is yet to come, and so the situation can only be expected to worsen throughout the night.

Not only is flooding on this scale capable of devastating homes, it can have a major impact on businesses too, and not just those that are directly affected by flood waters: with roads and railways closed, getting goods delivered to customers can be a huge challenge, assuming that staff can make it into work to fulfil orders in the first place.

Flooding prevention and resilience: an infrastructure priority?

When we think of the sort of ‘infrastructure’ that improves economic performance, we tend to think about connectivity – about how we move people and goods around further and faster – and it’s where a lot of people expect investment to be made.

But, as today’s flooding and heavy rainfall shows, that’s not necessarily a given, even with a well developed motorway and strategic road network. For instance, at around midday today, a large pothole formed on the westbound carriageway of the M62 in Greater Manchester, which Highways England is blaming on the persistent wet weather conditions. A hole that spans two lanes of one of the region’s busiest motorways is going to cause a lot of disruption in the days ahead as people start going back to work after Christmas.

If we can’t ship goods and get our people into work because its flooded or damaged by the weather, spending more money on our road and rail infrastructure could prove useless and may do nothing to revitalise the economies of city regions in the North of England.

So, perhaps flood prevention and resilience is where our investment should be prioritised if we don’t want to drown the concept of the Northern Powerhouse?

According to a recent report
30% of people said flood defences should be priorities for infrastructure spending at the national level; 15% said that improving sewers/drains should be a local priority.

The economic benefits and who could pay

It’s clear that there are both direct and indirect benefits to spending on flood prevention and resilience.

At the direct level are the civil engineering projects needed to upgrade sewers, drains and sewage treatment facilities to help them better cope with storm waters.

Indirectly, there are the opportunity cost savings for businesses that are able to avoid disruption due to flooding, and for home and business owners that could benefit from lowered insurance premiums.

In 2013, Anne McIntosh MP, the then Conservative chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, said that every £1 spent on flood defences yields economic benefits of £8.

If that’s the case, it should be a clear winner in the competition for infrastructure investment, but that spend still has to be found somewhere.

Who should pay?

Well, given that the first duty of any government is to look after its citizens, a hefty share of flood preparation and resilience spending should probably come from central and local government – something for city regions with devolved powers to consider for the future.

But there’s clearly a role for the private sector too, including the water utility companies and insurers.

And there’s perhaps also room for a levy on homes and businesses too: United Utilities supplies water and wastewater services to 7 million homes and 200,000 business in North West England – all of whom would potentially benefit from increased spending on flood prevention and resilience in one way or another, and who may be prepared to help collectively fund improvements with a small levy if they can see tangible benefits such as reduced insurance premiums. Just £2 a month on water and wastewater bills for United Utilities’ customers could raise over £172 million to spend on network upgrades and other flood protection measures.

Prevention is key

Flood defences are crucial, but doing more to reduce the causes of flooding is of greater importance.

Better upland management of the catchment for rivers and streams should be a priority, as should reinstating drainage ditches around agricultural land that have long-since been in-filled by farmers seeking to maximise land area and crop yields.

In building roads, car parks and other permanent structures, we’ve reduced the ability of rainwater to soak away, forcing it into sewers/drains instead that quickly become overwhelmed. And so we need to think more about the case for sustainable drainage in urban areas, including building roads and car parks with integral drainage that permits rainwater to pass through and escape to groundwater.

 

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