Flood risk to power, schools and hospitals

Environment Agency warns that too many vital services are built on flood plains and demands firms do more to protect themselves
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The Independent Online

Thousands of power stations, water treatment works, schools, health centres, fire stations and other vital services have been built on flood plains and are severely at risk of being inundated and put out of commission, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

As the Met Office last night issued a severe weather warning for further heavy rain across the Midlands and the south of England, official statistics show that vast areas of the country's infrastructure could be disabled by future floods. Yet utility companies have ignored repeated government appeals to flood-proof their facilities.

In Tewkesbury yesterday, police and firefighters searching for teenager Mitchell Taylor, who disappeared during the heavy flooding there, found a body in a submerged field.

Baroness Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency, is pressing for legislation to require utility companies to examine their vulnerability to flooding and climate change. She added: "Utilities will have to pay for this protection and undoubtedly they will have to pass that on to their customers."

The extent of the threat was highlighted this week when 350,000 people in Gloucestershire lost their water supply when a treatment works was disabled by the floods; they will remain dependent on bottled water and bowsers for another two weeks. And in the Tewkesbury area, 50,000 homes had their electricity supply cut off.

But an even greater disaster was averted when agency staff and the armed forces stopped flood water knocking out an electricity substation on which 500,000 homes depend: the water stopped just two inches short of the top of the hastily assembled defences.

The statistics, being compiled by an internal agency review, show that 2,215 power stations and substations, and 737 sewage and water-treatment sites are at severe risk of flooding. So are 401 schools, 680 health centres and doctors' surgeries, 99 police stations, 86 fire stations, 82 telephone exchanges, 46 ambulance stations and 13 hospitals.

In recent years the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have urged utilities to erect defences to protect vital installations. But little has been done. Now Lady Young is to urge ministers to introduce a new clause into the Climate Change Bill – due for the next parliamentary session – to require utilities, local authorities and emergency services to review their preparedness. The agency also wants authorities to address the risk caused by inadequate drainage, one of the main causes of last week's devastation. Almost all the early floods were the result of sewers and drains not coping with the amount of rain, including the blocking of the M5, which stranded motorists overnight, and Hull's inundation in June. The problem is aggravated by the amount of concrete laid over the countryside in past decades, which prevents water being absorbed into the earth. The agency is pressing for developments to be built with bigger drains and porous concrete.

Climatologists say that global warming is increasing the severity of rain, making floods ever more likely. But though meteorologists can predict storms they cannot say exactly where they will hit, making it hard to set emergency defences. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, will raise the issue of climate change when he visits President George Bush in Washington this week.