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A military man's damming take on the nation's defence against floods

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Government reviews are not, for the most part, held up as examples of remarkable literature. But once in a while an outsider slips past the barrier of self-censorship that seems prerequisite to publication.

Yesterday, Major General Tim Cross (retired) marched straight past that barrier, advancing on the “enemy” (his words) of England’s flood risk. In a wonderfully written review of the country’s flood response plans, the man who once told David Cameron, then prime minister, to “bugger off” insisted that a “lack of any coherent boundaries” placed around 5.5 million properties at risk of flooding.

And should the levee break, those in local government responsible would not be able to handle a “very large scale” incident, such as seen in the summer of 2007 when floods killed 13 people.

“Even with reasonable notice, and current regional and national resources being made available, there is a high probability that Local Resilience Forums would struggle to deal with the problem,” General Cross said.

General Cross, president of the Institute of Civil Protection & Emergency Management (which incidentally keeps its Twitter account protected), was commissioned in November by environment secretary Michael Gove as part of a £2.5bn project to address flood risk.

Mr Gove said in a November statement: “The review will examine around 30 strategic flood plans and over 600 tactical flood plans related to specific districts. General Cross and the external advisory group, supported by Defra and the Environment Agency, will undertake a qualitative review, visiting LRFs and identifying best practice.”

In reality, it makes perfect sense for Mr Gove to commission a military man to review the nation’s flood defences. When major flooding incidents occur, there are often images of soldiers helping to provide relief. There are now 1,200 military troops across three battalions trained to assist in flood response, General Cross said in his review.

But what of the flood prevention negating the need to deploy troops? After almost a decade of austerity, the Environment Agency has seen its budget slashed by 56% since 2010-11 (from £113m to £50m in 2016-17) leading to “dramatic” reductions in emergency planning manager numbers, General Cross said. In some areas these reductions have all “inevitably eroded the ability” to plan and respond to a flood risk.

And not much has changed in the past four years. General Cross’ warning that one in six homes are currently at risk of flooding can also be seen in a 2014 National Audit Office (NAO) report, warning that government spending on English flood defences was “insufficient”.

That was alarming then as it is now, especially after LGC reported last week that 11% of new homes in England built in 2016-17 were located in type-3 flood zones.

In setting out that his views are “rooted in British Army ‘Doctrine’”, General Cross deployed a military mindset throughout his review, insisting that clearer leadership is needed throughout the system.

“In military parlance there is no designated system of [Command and Control] – most Local Resilience Forums are chaired by senior Police Officers, who are clearly well placed to bring clarity and focus, and they often bring very effective and robust leadership, but more through coordination and cooperation rather than command,” General Cross said in his review.

General Cross argues that the removal of ring fencing from local authority budgets in 2010 has led to many councils moving funding away from flood preparedness and resilience to meet its other statutory responsibilities, such as social care.

One of his solutions to all of this is to install a “Mission Command” which co-ordinates efforts centrally across the 45 fire and rescue service areas. He also calls on the Cabinet Office to create guidance which will set out how areas should develop flood response plans.

The fact General Cross acknowledged councils have diverted funds away from flooding due to “overall budget cuts” means his arguments for a greater centralisation of power is perhaps recognition central government might be alone with having the resources left to adequetely deal with an issue of this magnitude. 

By Robert Cusack, reporter

A military man's damming take on the nation's defence against floods

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