Water, Water, Everywhere…

Devon escaped relatively lightly from this year's flooding events that caused havoc elsewhere in the country, although the flash flood in Torquay's Fleet Walk caused an estimated £1 million worth of damage. However, many of Devon's principal towns...

The tally isn't final but estimates put damage from the flash flood in Torquay in late August at £1 million. It's the fourth time Fleet Walk Shopping Mall has flooded in 18 years and despite trolleys of sandbags at the ready and honed flood drills, the waters rose so quickly that 18 of the 20 shops were still deluged. "I've never seen anything like it," said John Seymour, Assistant Manager at the mall. "The flood lasted about half an hour and disappeared in minutes, but we just couldn't react quickly enough."

Despite Torquay's flash floods, overall Devon escaped lightly this summer. The wettest July on record caused flooding in other regions in England that devastated thousands of homes across several counties. But the Westcountry may not always be so lucky. The Environment Agency (EA) lists places built on flood plains like Exeter, Barnstaple, Tiverton, Teignmouth, Newton Abbot and Totnes as being still at risk of flooding despite coastal and tidal flood defences. Climate-change predictions suggest flooding is going to become more common because of rising sea levels and warmer, wetter weather, especially in the winter. The question is: Just how well prepared is Devon to face this increased risk?

The EA for the Southwest region is in charge of building and maintaining Devon's coastal and river flood defences, and this year the Defra-managed agency is spending over £50 million across the region on new and existing projects, including £10 million schemes at Shaldon and Teignmouth due for completion in 2011. Although the government has promised to up its spend from £600 million to £800 million nationally by 2010, Devon will now have to compete for future funding against other needier areas in the UK devastated by recent floods. "The money is not just dished out; it's only reasonable to direct the money to where it is most needed," says Richard Horrocks, Regional Flood Risk Manager at the EA.

Some critics say the current national budget isn't enough because investment in flood defences isn't keeping pace with the need to protect new homes built on flood plains. Around two million homes across the UK are now either built on flood plains or in coastal areas vulnerable to flooding, and many of the government's planned three million new homes by 2020 will also be sited on flood plains. In Devon, Plymouth has targets for 30,000 new homes by 2026. Critics claim the Cranbrook development, seven miles east of Exeter, which will house up to 5,000 new homes by 2016, is sited too near a flood plain.

The crux of the problem isn't building new houses on flood plains - much of Holland is below sea level and London is built on a flood plain - but in investing in flood defences alongside these new developments.

"If you build on flood plains, water will have to be pumped, often uphill, and there has to be a great storage capacity for flood waters," says Dieter Helm, a flood expert at Oxford University. "The British approach is rather to build the houses and then see what happens."

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The insurance industry is lobbying for better flood defences around new developments. "We believe the planning process needs to be looked at, particularly where there is a proposal to build on a flood plain, and that regulations regarding drainage, infrastructure and building regulations need thoroughly examining," says Steve Muir, Media Manager at AXA, the UK's third biggest insurer.

But the government says the EA is taking a more proactive approach by advising planners on whether flood defences are adequate around new developments.

"It is councils who decide whether to give planning permission for new housing developments, but new planning rules require councils to consult with the EA before allowing new building in flood-risk areas," said a spokesperson for the Communities and Local Government Department. Richard Horrocks is confident Devon's flood defences are sound. "What concerns me most is where we have communities that are at risk of flooding when there is no funding to help them, and I am confident there are no such communities in Devon."

His words may offer local residents reassurance at a time when the EA has come under fire nationally. It failed to meet targets to protect an additional 31,000 homes in England and Wales between 2006/07 and on improving flood-management systems. The EA has also had to defend bonuses paid to its executives amid accusations the money should have been spent helping flood victims.

The summer floods will cost the UK insurance industry an estimated £3 billion. Faced with increasing bills, insurers are putting up their premiums, cutting the level of cover they offer and in some cases actually refusing to offer cover at all. Many people around the UK are now struggling to insure their homes against flood damage.

Plymouth resident Gary Rogers says his insurance has rocketed after his house in Laira Avenue flooded for the third time in two years in early 2006. "The excess I have to pay on any flood claim has gone up to £2,500 from £50, and that was the best deal I could find," he says.

Southwest Water plays a key role in protecting Devon from floods. The utility company is responsible for a 9,000km labyrinth of sewers and drains under the county's towns and villages. It's a drainage system, like much of the country's network, that dates back to Victorian times, and struggles to cope with run-off from torrential rains. It's the reason why more floods - like the flash flood in Torquay - are appearing away from rivers. Southwest Water has pledged to spend £42 million by 2010 on improving and building capacity in the region's sewerage system but insists the solution to the problem also lies with its customers.

"Our biggest problem is people putting things down the toilet they shouldn't, like nappies and sanitary towels," explains Kim Vanstone, Sewerage and Strategic Contracts Manager at Southwest Water. "During dry weather they just sit in the drainage system and when it rains they get stuck and cause back-up and flooding in the system." The company says other problems, including increased amounts of hardstanding like roads and concreted gardens, means rainwater isn't soaked up as it was in the past.

These are all challenges customers expect the company to fix and although Southwest Water has the highest rates in the country, it's a cost Ofwat, the water regulator, says is necessary to fund fixing pipes and connect new homes. Southwest Water insists it's quick to respond and compensate victims of sewerage flooding, but like the EA and local councils, it only responds to flooding specific to its responsibilities. River and coastal flooding are the responsibility of the EA, and building and maintaining road drains and gullies rests with local councils.

But few floods are caused by a single incident. Gary Rogers says his home in Plymouth is still at risk of flooding because the solution rests with different organisations cooperating together. "Everyone just ends up blaming each other and at the end of the day I've got nowhere to go," he says.

The summer floods illustrated the importance of a coordinated policy on flood protection around crucial infrastructure. The EA says responsibility for protection lies with the utilities but recent floods in July caught them unprepared. Severn Trent's Mythe water treatment works, which supplies 140,000 homes, failed, and Walham substation in Gloucester, a major electricity works supplying power to a quarter of a million homes, almost did. Devon residents are just as vulnerable. Pynes Water Treatment serves Exeter and is in the Exe floodplain. "We have provided flood risk information to the major utilities and are expecting them to liaise with us," says Horrocks. "We expect most sites to be secure in the 1 in 100 chance level, but as we have seen, more severe chance levels can occur."

But Devon is spearheading a pilot project that could bring clarity to flood responsibility. The Torbay area is one of 15 catchments singled out in a £1.7 million Integrated Urban Drainage pilot project to develop a new coordinated approach to flood management.

"The pilots will provide new tools for mapping and managing surface water following heavy rainwater events, and bring more clarity on responsibilities for those managing urban flood risk," says a Defra spokesperson. "The floods will have had a silver lining if the government realises there is a need for some radical institutional surgery," says Dieter Helm.

In case of flooding, Devon County Council has also drawn up a Flood Warning and Response Plan. It details the different roles of the councils and emergency services in anticipation of, and in response to, a flood. "It's a multi-agency plan prepared by the County Council, which coordinates the actions of the County Council, District Council and all emergency services, as well as the Environment Agency and voluntary organisations," says Adrian Lane at Devon County Council.

Some critics say that instead of directing energy wholly towards combating floods, homeowners should start innovating to live with the inevitability of flood risk.

"It's not just a question of getting smarter with the sandbags, but actually starting to design our homes better so they can cope with flooding - like positioning electrical fittings higher up than on the skirting board," says David Butler, Professor of Water Engineering at Exeter University. Innovations like building homes on stilts and using disposable and recyclable materials may be in the future. Even so, without massive investment to protect low-lying and flood-prone areas, it is only a matter of time until Devon residents suffer again.

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