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Council counts the cost
Planning – 11 June 2010

Last autumn's severe flooding in Cumbria has given local authorities and other public bodies much to think about in planning recovery operations and guarding against similar events in future, says Mark Smulian

As a wall of water 2.5m high travelling at 35 knots headed for Cockermouth on 19 November last year, residents knew they were in trouble. The town is at the confluence of the Cocker and Derwent rivers and flooding is a regular occurrence. But no previous event matched the scale of this one, which followed 316mm of rain in 24 hours.

By the time the flood abated, Cockermouth had experienced a soaking that overwhelmed its defences. All 96 businesses housed in Georgian and Victorian premises on its main street were inundated, as were 917 other properties. In all, 226 businesses that account for 80 per cent of the town's commerce were affected. Six months on, Cockermouth and its somewhat less damaged neighbours Keswick and Workington are getting back on their feet. Yet a progress report from Cumbria Council County released last month in May shows that much remains to be done. Planners and colleagues across local government have been called on to do everything from preparing the emergency construction of a station to restoring shopfronts.

While there is pride in local efforts to achieve a recovery, there is an underlying concern about how well external help was organised by public bodies and who will pay for the huge amount of work still needed. The county council says its emergency plans functioned well, but could not cope with this unprecedented volume of water.

The report notes that offers of government funding came in after every minister's visit. "Each had different criteria and methods of access, which can be complicated processes for local agencies to navigate," it remarks. The DfT won some praise for appointing consultants to work on the recovery process from the outset and help find paths through the funding maze for emergency infrastructure works, a step Cumbria calls "a first for government and extremely beneficial in creating a single team approach between local and central government".

But local agencies were faced with short timescales for assessing damage and submitting claims. Compounding the problem, it was impossible to inspect infrastructure while it was either submerged or covered by the snow that followed the flood. "These difficulties, combined with the size and rurality of Cumbria, made it difficult to hit government deadlines," the report says.

Natural disasters do not wait for public sector procurement processes to run their course. Cumbria found it had structural engineers volunteering to help it inspect infrastructure but "was unable to quickly ensure that their work would be indemnified". The county recommends the development of a national system of joint working between central and local government in crises, in particular on emergency procurement packages.

Infrastructure repairs enabled town link

In Workington, damage to buildings was less severe but bridges collapsed and one half of the town was cut off from the other. The councils worked with Network Rail to get the temporary Workington North station built and are now considering whether to keep this facility permanently to encourage greater use of public transport. Other achievements include a 4.6 million temporary road bridge across the River Derwent, built in only 72 days and for which funding was assembled in just two months.

However, a formidable job remains in restoring other elements of damaged infrastructure. Seven road bridges and one culvert still need to be rebuilt or repaired and the Port of Workington, although dredged of debris by January, still has significant structural damage. Many rural areas were also devastated, raising further complexities. "Despite pledges of support, there are still many issues outstanding and questions that need to be answered about assistance due to farmers and landowners," says the county council.

The local authorities will also need to reassess which areas can now accommodate new homes, since the floods hit areas that were thought not to be at risk. "Most of the damage occurred in valley bottoms rather than in areas where there has been new building, although they were damaged by run-off," explains Allerdale Borough Council strategic manager for business Jill Elliott. "This is not an area with a high volume of house building. It is only 260 properties a year and not all of that is in Cockermouth."

Flooding on this scale has left the Environment Agency facing a quandary as to what level of flooding it can reasonably protect against. Area flood risk manager for Cumbria and Lancashire Glyn Vaughan says: "I've been involved in Cumbria flood work since 1978 and I had never seen the like of it, not even the floods in Carlisle in 2005 that were called 'unprecedented'. Five years later there has been another flood and it was even bigger."

Cockermouth's defences were designed to hold back a one in 100-year flood but were deluged by one put by the agency at more like one in 300. The previous record flow in the River Derwent, in January 2005, had been 305m3 per second.

Last autumn it was more than twice as fast. Vaughan maintains that the flood defences were structurally good but the water just ran over them. "It would be impossible to build defences against that kind of flood without changing the entire landscape," he says.

"We are putting repairs in to embankments in Keswick and Cockermouth even where we do not own the structures," he explains. "I have decided to spend 1 million on that because if we try to charge the owners we could be looking at five years of arguments and if they are not repaired then the integrity of our defences elsewhere could be damaged."

Flood risk zone rethink justifies defences

The intensity of flooding has led to some changes in the boundaries of protected zones. "There is an area near the centre of Cockermouth called the Gote. There are around 50 homes there and it was really badly flooded. It had no defences as it was thought to be outside the flood risk area," says Vaughan. "Now we are looking at spending 100,000, having decided that it is viable to defend because the cost-benefit analysis works."

More widely, the agency is trying to encourage flood resistance and resilience in homes. "Resistance is things like installing air bricks and having doors that will hold back a flood. Resilience is about having power sockets 1.5m high and sealed concrete floors," Vaughan elaborates. But he has come up against the insurance industry's usual reluctance to replace damaged items with anything superior to what was there originally. "A key issue for us is to get insurers to install resistance and resilience when they put right damage to homes," he says.

"When there were floods in Cockermouth in 2005, they just replaced like with like. If you have a really good-quality plastic door instead, it is a barrier to water. It is a false economy for insurers not to do that because it costs them more in the long run," he adds.

The Association of British Insurers, the industry's trade body, responds that it would be happy to consider replacing damaged fittings with flood-resistant ones. "But some clients do not want it, they want what was there before restored," says a spokesman.

Cockermouth rebuilds

On the morning after the floods, Allerdale Borough Council's planning, building control and conservation officers acted to ensure that business premises in Cockermouth were protected from further damage before turning to measures to help the town's recovery.

The waters devastated Cockermouth's central conservation area, which contains many listed buildings and others from which permitted development rights have been removed. The scene presented a challenge but also an opportunity to restore lost historic features and undo past mistakes by replacing modern shopfronts with ones more in keeping with the town's Georgian appearance.

In the aftermath, planners and building control officers began a labour-intensive process of talks with owners about restoration. Although some buildings had been flooded to first-floor level, none had been destroyed. "So it was a case of suggesting the most appropriate ways to restore those that were damaged," says Allerdale's strategic manager for business Jill Elliott.

The council approved a 50,000 fund to bridge the gap between what was needed and the like-for-like replacement for which insurers would pay. A palette of shopfront colours was agreed, inappropriate lettering was replaced by traditional fonts and large windows gave way to simple designs that divide glass expanses with traditional wooden mullions to create more vertically proportioned windows.

Shopfronts are being framed with pilasters and cornices in local materials and a similar approach is now being taken with damaged street furniture and signage. "We believe that the lessons learned here and the resultant toolkit can be adopted in other historic towns to restore their heritage," says Elliott.

As recovery from the flood disaster continues, Cumbria expects to put detailed costings to the government later this year for the help it still needs to repair damage and protect its towns and landscapes from future inundations. Coming so soon after the Severn Valley and Yorkshire floods of 2007, which were also of unprecedented severity, and those in Cornwall in 2004, plenty of eyes will surely turn to Cumbria to learn how best to prepare and defend.