Lancashire needs to make better use of the local knowledge of its residents to help prevent flooding across the county.
That is the message from the chair of a new task group set up to investigate whether the region could be better protected from flooding - and better prepared if it happens.
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County Cllr Erica Lewis, whose own area in Lancaster flooded extensively exactly a year ago, will lead a cross-party committee at county hall. And she says one of its main aims will be to bring together the estimated 40 local flood action groups, which are all currently working individually in their own corners of the county.
“We do some really great things in our local communities, but there are problems that are bigger than individual areas, where we need to band together in order to get [the necessary action] - either from local or central government.
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“The agencies work really hard, but are spread very thin. If you’ve lived somewhere for decades and watched how the water flow has changed, you have a deep understanding of what’s going on in your local area.
“You might need to pair that with the technical expertise of an officer from an agency, but the residents involved in flood groups bring really valuable knowledge,” County Cllr Lewis adds.
Lancashire has seen its fair share of flooding in recent years. The River Yarrow has burst its banks on several occasions since 2012, sending water flowing through the Chorley village of Croston. Just after Christmas 2015, the area saw Chinook helicopters fly in to try to help repair flood defences.
Meanwhile, St Michael’s on Wyre was evacuated on two separate occasions during Storm Desmond, almost three years ago, and the flash flood which hit Lancaster last November brought devastation to dozens of homes and businesses.
According to County Cllr Lewis, the increase in significant flooding in Lancashire demonstrates that it can no longer be considered a rare event. But she says the issue is not always given the priority it deserves.
“Whether it's clearing gullies or maintenance of rivers, all of these things are stretched and strained. The government has pulled back from its investment in those services and said, essentially, the risk is up to individual residents and businesses to carry.
“If you're a business, you'll get less support from the Environment Agency to defend yourself against flooding [than a householder] - and if you're a farmer, there's very little chance you'll get any support at all.”
Chorley Council invested more than £1m in a flood defence scheme to protect its residents in 2016.
The Environment Agency says that it is the responsibility of landowners to maintain the banks of watercourses which flow through their property, but that it “prioritises flood maintenance which will benefit the most people and properties, carrying out a full, annual programme of work agreed with local partners.
It adds: “New flood defences are now protecting more than 23,000 homes in Lancashire and Cumbria.
“We are investing a record £2.6 billion to better protect the country from flooding. This includes over 1,500 flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 homes by 2021.
For County Cllr Lewis, the threat of flooding can never be eradicated, but it can be mitigated.
“We really shouldn’t be building in places which are a flood risk and if you are building near places that flood, we need to be asking those developments to hold and slow water.
“There is a lot we can do - whether [capturing] water in catchment areas so that it doesn’t come down to urban areas as quickly or having better ways to catch that water [if it does].
The Flood Prevention and Preparedness Task Group is expected to begin work early in the new year.
FIGHTING THE FLOODS
According to the Environment Agency:
***Since 2015, the Environment Agency has built 28 new flood defences in Lancashire and Cumbria which better protect more than 23,000 homes.
In 2018/19, the Environment Agency is spending £10.5 million to maintain our flood defences in Lancashire and Cumbria so they continue to reduce flood risk to local communities.
***Work is also scheduled to begin in Preston & South Ribble on a scheme that will protect over 3,000 residential and 600 commercial properties.
*** In October 2018, we completed the construction of a £10.8m government-funded flood defence sea wall flood in Morecambe that will reduce the risk of tidal flooding to over 13,000 homes and businesses.