Flood and water reflections for a new government

Flood and water reflections for a new government

ADA’s Chief Executive, Innes Thomson, reflects on the results of the General Election 2024 and the challenges in store for the incoming government across the flood risk and water level management environment.

We have all woken up to an historic swing in politics this morning with a resounding win for Labour, a major comeback for the Liberal Democrats, and significant gains for both the Green and Reform parties. Worryingly though, only 60% of the population able to vote did so, which was close to the lowest recorded general election turnout of 59% in 2001, since 1885.

To all those MPs who have retained or won seats in areas where ADA and its members work, I offer many congratulations. I acknowledge those who have lost their parliamentary seats or have simply stood down at this election and with whom we had working relationships. Can I offer my sincere thanks to each of you for the interest you have shown in the critical issue of water level and flood risk management.

Labour was standing for change and now is just the time that our industry needs that change of direction in policy and strategy towards more holistic flood and water management. ADA continues to support the wider national ethos towards our Flood & Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy in England, but we now have the opportunity to set robust goals and ambitious timescales. The other fundamental issue that ADA stands for is the need for a rebalancing of spending between capital and revenue budgets to recognise the increasingly important need for us to properly manage and maintain our flood risk assets and systems.

The Environment Agency has, over a number of years, been slowly starved of funding for operational maintenance and that must be reversed. Internal drainage boards in turn have found it increasingly difficult to do their jobs properly, because they cannot discharge the necessary volumes of water into main rivers or their districts have become increasingly inundated with flood water, both made worse by inadequately maintained main rivers. In making that rebalance, we would without doubt also see water quality and environmental improvements with more operational staff monitoring and managing our water courses on the ground.

There is little doubt that money will be in short supply for the new government and I would simply say to our new political decision makers that water and its management is a core foundation stone of our society, without which or when poorly managed, has multiple knock-on effects to our economy, our social wellbeing and our environment. Through their manifesto, Labour has said that it is keen to focus more on flood resilience and what better way to achieve that than ensuring that money is wisely spent on looking after our waterways and flood risk management assets. One suggestion I would have is for longer term revenue spending settlements so people can plan ahead for work needing to be done. I and many others argue that every penny spent wisely on water management provides a significant cost-benefit for our nation, its citizens, businesses, and environment.

ADA will also welcome continued progress on enabling legislation for land valuations that facilitates internal drainage boards to fairly apportion their expenses between landowners and local authorities. In turn this will enable internal drainage boards to do more locally to sustainably manage water in more lowland parts of England, working closely to help share the load with both local authorities and the Environment Agency.

Once the euphoria has died down, there are several tripwires we will all need to look out for. Highest on my radar is how we square the demand for new housing with ensuring that it is built in the right place with proper resilience to any future risk of flooding. Sustainable drainage must be a part of that resilience and ADA, with ASA, looks forward to the continued progress towards enabling Schedule 3 of the Floods & Water Management Act 2010.

Next on my list is the need for many more skilled people to be trained-up to understand water level and flood risk management. I am one of a generation of people who have lived and worked with water all their lives, but soon to reach the end of my working career. We are not doing enough to attract new blood into the sector and I would call on the new Government to prioritise education and training for the sector.

I would go a step further on this and argue that we need to re-equip our Local Authorities and the Environment Agency with the professional staff needed to deliver their public services. This would re-instate their roles as “intelligent clients” when dealing with water level and flood risk management projects, which will boost their efficiency and therefore the outcomes delivered. Internal Drainage Boards have already gone a long way to doing that and that investment is bearing fruit through the successful and efficient delivery of a range of projects by them.

My final trip wire thought is around the risk of losing focus on taking catchment-wide approaches to managing our rivers. I use the analogy of a tree with its leaves, branches, trunk and roots as the best analogy to demonstrate that it functions as a whole in the same way that a river system functions as a whole from source to sea and through all the various environments it flows. You cannot ignore one part in preference to another.

To conclude, I offer my congratulations to Sir Keir Starmer and his team and ADA looks forward to working with the new administration to help develop thoughts and ideas for positive change across water level and flood risk management.

By Innes Thomson BSc CEng FICE, Chief Executive, ADA