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Working to keep communities high and dry

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In the summer of 2007 the UK was devastated by floods, which caused £3bn of damage and flooded 55,000 properties. People were left homeless and shocked, and some lost loved ones.

We cannot prevent severe weather, but we can be ready when it strikes.

Since those terrible events almost two years ago, the government has been taking steps to ensure the five million people living in flood risk areas are better protected and that their local governments are given the powers to better protect them.

Sir Michael Pitt’s report on the 2007 floods set out 92 recommendations for change. The government published its response in December 2008 and supported action in relation to all of his recommendations.

We have now published the draft Flood and Water Management Bill. It covers all aspects of flood risk, as well as the management of water resources and the water industry.

It became evident through Sir Michael’s review that our legislation and organisational structures remained rooted in the 1940s.

The draft bill proposes giving single and upper-tier local authorities a clear leadership role in flood risk management and the government has made clear that any net new burdens would be fully funded.

It will also ensure organisations such as district councils, internal drainage boards and water and sewerage companies co-operate and share information with them.

More sustainable forms of drainage will be encouraged, and this will have implications for local government. Developments, which might previously have had an automatic right to connect to sewerage systems for rainwater drainage, will have to abide by new national standards.

Once these have been satisfied, unitary and county local authorities will become responsible for them, in much the same way as councils ‘adopt’ new roads.

While the draft bill sets out important changes, we cannot forget effects of drought.

The bill will create a modern and efficient water industry, giving water companies better powers to conserve water, improving the way they deal with complaints and enabling water companies to develop better ways of delivering large infrastructure projects.

A number of other steps have been taken.

We’ve set up a Flood Forecasting Centre, which will bring together the expertise of the Met Office and the Environment Agency to deliver earlier and more accurate warnings.

When disaster struck in 2007, many people were unaware they lived in flood risk areas and were unaware of the information that was available to them.

Since then, 124,000 people have registered with the Environment Agency’s free warning service, which brings the total number registered to 433,000.

A significant number of flood management schemes have been completed by the Environment Agency in England since 2007. Some of these schemes — such as those around Hexham in Northumberland — have already been put to the test.

In the three years to 2010-11, we will invest more than £2bn in protecting an extra 145,000 homes. Homes and families who will be spared the devastation and anguish that we all know flooding can bring.

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