Leading article: Preparation is the only defence

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No one predicted such a furious onslaught from the elements. In some parts of the country last week, a month's worth of rain fell in just 24 hours. Rivers burst their banks and, in the flash floods that followed, some 27,000 homes and 5,000 businesses were swamped. Five people were killed. The Fire Brigade mounted a rescue effort that its union called the "biggest in peacetime Britain".

But while last week's weather was extraordinary, we should have been better prepared. A report by the National Audit Office last month concluded that only 57 per cent of our existing flood defence systems are in good condition. Of course, even the best defences would not have held back the deluge that engulfed parts of Sheffield. But the fact remains that, in many areas, better contingency planning could have prevented a good deal of damage.

The Government has not spent nearly enough improving national flood defences in the past seven years. This is especially irresponsible given that some 5 million people in England and Wales live in areas that are at risk from inundation. Two million homes have been built on the flood plains of rivers or vulnerable parts of the coast. And now the Government is making new housing promises. There are plans to build 200,000 houses on flood-prone land in the Thames Gateway.

It is time that ministers conducted a serious analysis of this problem. They must either reconsider the location of these new homes, or commit themselves to a considerable investment in flood defences.

The Environment Agency is asking for £250m a year to cope with the problem. This would mean planting more trees, allowing land beside rivers to flood when necessary, and turning ploughed fields into meadows. The head of the Environment Agency, Baroness Young of Old Scone, is also calling for the Government to encourage farmers to manage their land in a way that would prevent flooding. This all sounds sensible.

More rain is forecast in the coming days. The Environment Agency has four severe flood warnings in place in South Yorkshire, as well as 13 for the North-east and eight in East Anglia. This is a taste of the future. Researchers at Newcastle University have found that rainstorms have grown twice as intense over much of Britain over the past four decades. This trend looks certain to continue. Extreme weather patterns will be a feature of the warmer world produced by climate change.

If we fail to build adequate flood defences now, there will be nothing extraordinary in the future about the sort of misery that is presently being endured by thousands of British householders.