Flood damage 'was preventable'
Some of the damage from the recent floods could have been prevented if the correct water management techniques had been used, a group of experts has said.
In an open letter, the experts - representing 15 organisations including the Institution of Environmental Sciences, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors - urged David Cameron to convene a cross-departmental conference bringing together Whitehall departments, the Environment Agency and the professions to put in place measures to prevent a repeat of the current floods.
The call came as shadow chancellor Ed Balls pledged that i nvestment in flood defences would be a priority for an incoming Labour government.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Balls accused the coalition Government of "short-termist salami-slicing" of budgets for flood defences, and said that 300 "shovel-ready" schemes were shelved last year because of lack of funding.
The open letter, also published in the Telegraph, set out technical measures which could cut the risk of future floods, including the use of forestry and land management to hold back water in the upper reaches of rivers as well as dredging to ease problems in the lower reaches.
The experts said that sustainable drainage systems should be fitted on existing and new buildings and that buildings and land that cannot be properly protected should be made resilient to withstand flooding. All new housing on flood plains should be resilient when built, they said.
"While we are pleased to hear that the Prime Minister will provide leadership and funding, it is essential that government actions are based on best practice developed over many years," said the letter.
"Water management techniques could have helped prevent the effect of flooding on villages, towns and over surrounding land seen recently. Emergency measures are in order for the immediate crisis. But in the long term, the management of water requires a clear strategy."
The letter came a day after the Met Office confirmed that the UK has suffered its wettest winter in records dating back more than a century.
Figures for December 1 to February 19 show that the UK has had 486.8mm (19.2 inches) of rain, making it the wettest winter in records dating back to 1910, beating the previous record set in 1995 of 485.1mm (19.1 inches).
Two severe flood warnings remain in place in the Somerset Levels, which has been one of the worst-hit areas this winter, suffering prolonged flooding in the face of repeated storms and heavy rain.
Across the rest of southern and central England, the risk of flooding is receding as river levels fall, including along the Thames and Severn, the Environment Agency said.
But properties in areas including Windsor and Maidenhead, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Wokingham and West Berkshire could remain flooded for some time.
And with more unsettled weather on the way, the risk of flooding will be slow to disappear, the Environment Agency warned.
There are 70 flood warnings, and 119 less serious flood alerts currently in place across England and Wales. Groundwater is continuing to rise, with continuing flooding in parts of Greater London, Kent, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.
Mr Balls said that a review carried out for Labour by Olympic supremo Sir John Armitt had identified the construction of flood defences which can cope with the potential effects of climate change as "a national priority".
Sir John will soon publish draft legislation to create an independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK's long-term infrastructure needs and hold governments of all political colours to account for delivering them.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Balls said: "Of course, if Labour wins the next election, there will need to be spending cuts. There will be a big deficit still to be brought down after the global financial crisis and the Chancellor (George Osborne) is set to break his promise to balance the books by 2015.
"But how we make those cuts is vital. Our zero-based review of public spending - a root-and-branch review of every pound spent by government from the bottom up - is clear that we must eliminate waste and inefficiencies, but also prioritise preventative spending that can save money in the long term.
"There can be few better examples than investment in flood defences."
Spending on defences was boosted after the 2007 floods, but the coalition Government then cut it by 17% in real terms in 2010, said Mr Balls.
"Even after announcements in recent weeks, the House of Commons Library says that Government spending on flood defences is lower in real terms during this spending review period than the last one," he said.
"Meanwhile, there were over 300 shovel-ready flood-defence projects last year that could have been built but weren't due to lack of funding."
Citing a recent warning from the Committee on Climate Change that investment in flood defences was £500 million below what was needed and that this risked £3 billion in avoidable flood damage, Mr Balls said: "How can this make economic sense? Rather than the short-termist salami-slicing of budgets we have seen, we need instead to make long-term decisions now that can save money in the future.
"Next month's Budget must begin to set out that action, and I am also clear that investment in flood defences - preventative spending that can save money in the long-run - must and will be a priority for the next Labour government."