Ian Heijne

Ian Heijne

Technical Director

UK & Europe

Ian Heijne is a Client Director for our Water Management Agencies. This includes Environment Agency, NRW, Rivers Agency, SEPA and the Internal Drainage Boards.

Ian is Technical Director for Flood Risk & Resilience and the Atkins Director on VBA JV Ltd, an incorporated JV servicing the Environment Agency's WEM Lot 4 Framework


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For me, it’s quite worrying to think about what communities across the country can expect to experience in weather terms over the next 6 months, and the subsequent impacts.

Last winter, a great deal of effort was employed into making repairs across those areas badly affected. Atkins worked with a number of public organisations and construction partners to ensure that the river systems breached in the winter of 15/16 are ready to protect the local communities from future torrential weather that we can no doubt expect (given the patterns of heavier rainfall in recent times). This work supports the government’s promises made in early 2016 which are now are largely in place.

The government has also undertaken the National Flood Resilience Review. One of the key aims of the government as highlighted in the review, was that infrastructure companies would have emergency response plans to flooding in place. Meaning that critical assets are protected and any outages are quickly re-instated. In my view, we are already seeing improvements in utility response to the current events.

We have also seen the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produce a cross party report demanding a strong focus on joined up and efficient action to improve flood protection by creating a ‘National Floods Commissioner’ and new English Rivers and Coastal Authority. However, their recommendations for action will no doubt have long implementation time lines. The committee’s call for catchment measures for example, offers no immediate respite to the current situation.

So, what are we to expect next in terms of action to prevent future flooding?

In the long term, we can be certain that the UK government will continue to invest in the areas of highest risk – helping to keep our most vulnerable communities safe. We can also be certain that whether a new authority is created or if the existing arrangements continue - the implementation of greater resilience and catchment solutions will happen, albeit slowly and over many years. Without a doubt, the technical community is already working hard to address the fragile situation with the funds that are available.

But extreme weather will continue to thrash our country each year, whether that is high winds, storms, huge waves along the coast, or even leaves on our rail tracks. We must, in my view, continue to hold our authorities and utility companies to account. And the public needs to be prepared - understand your local risk, listen to the forecasts, behave sensibly and most importantly be safe.

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For me it is hugely important for a variety reasons. Firstly, the report has finally acknowledged public concern that there has been too much damage to property due to flooding in recent years. Secondly, it is evidence that the government has taken this opportunity to at last advance the technical understanding of flood risk – something that has been outdated for quite some time.

So does it achieve these objectives?  Yes and no. The emphasis of this review is on the impact of flooding on public services and infrastructure, which is important as disruption to the road network, electricity supply and water supply has to be avoided. Working closely with the water companies and telecoms, the government has gained agreement for some 530 vulnerable sites to be protected. This is good news.

This report has also undertaken a significant piece of research, carried out by the Met Office, to completely reshape the way that we predict rainfall, which is something that consultants like Atkins have needed for some time. Instead of looking back at recorded data and then using some ‘simple maths’ to attempt to predict what the future holds, the Met Office’s weather forecasting computers can now generate over 900 years of future rainfall predictions across the whole of the UK. This is a major step forward. From my perspective, we must move away from statistical analysis to this new synthesis based approach based on actual physical processes.

Importantly the findings of this review confirm that the ‘Extreme Flood Outlines’ (areas with a 0.1% annual probability of flooding), produced by the Environment Agency, and published on their website, are effective - they have been validated using the Met Office rainfall and provide good information on flood risk for planning purposes.

I am pleased to see that the review supports much greater use of temporary defences, which are seen as fast and adaptable, through the commitment to the Environment Agency for a £12.5 million spend for temporary defences. In addition, the government has gained commitment from the utility companies to also invest in temporary defences, which is again progress. 

So what is missing?

I think that the report fails to address the risk to individuals and their homes – and surely with the devastating consequences that a number of our communities have experienced as a result of flooding in recent years, this will not sit comfortably with a number of people. For me, there is a gap in the review's discussion on flood strategies and how that relates to people. I am of the view that we need to continue to ask how the public understand risk, how it feels to them, and what they actually want from these policies.

I have drawn a number of positives from the report and hope that some of the promised actions are followed through, including:

  • The work completed by the Met Office has to be progressed, the current predictions are monthly, and we need greater frequency (and at a more local level). This dataset would be powerful for future scenario testing and would empower the technical efforts to develop catchment wide solutions.
  • A much greater emphasis on the economic growth of communities is required, linking investment in flood defences to regeneration. Even if this means retaining risks. The acceptance that communities should be at the centre of decision making is essential. 
  • We need to consider flooding as a human issue. We need to bring social thinking into the science of flood risk and then maybe we can develop answers which the public can empathise with.

UK & Europe,

Traditional views are that flood mitigation is a government problem, so Liz Truss’ support gives councils in Cumbria a way to introduce a similar arrangement, and other councils will no doubt be looking on with interest. If the scheme goes ahead, Somerset’s shadow precept could see the average council tax bill in the area increase by around £15 from April.

In my opinion, there are numerous benefits to having local residents engage and decide how their homes, towns and outlying areas are protected from flooding. For a start, it makes more money available to be spent on more schemes, and more resources can be made available to help in the emergency response.

I’d like to see the investment being led/spent by the community steering group (appointed by the community, a bit like school governors) to decide who and how to develop a scheme. The only requirement would be a ‘technical approver’ assigned by the council to sign off the solution.

This type of approach would override current government guidance which requires investment in flood defences to demonstrate a benefit cost ratio of 8:1, very steep when compared with, say, transport which has a ratio of 2:1.

I really believe flooding is a community challenge. With local empowerment, residents can learn and understand much more about the science and choose how and where to invest their tax money, which has the potential to see them much better prepared when a flood occurs.

It would also play to the majority of people who remain unaffected by flooding, and while having sympathy, may wonder how we can justify spending more of the Chancellor’s tax receipts on this issue.

Of course local decision making has its problems. Flood mitigation has no single solution and therefore local agreement on what is best within communities would need carefully handling, but I believe the professional flood risk community can support this. Some of the community action I see around the world demonstrates the importance of community education and involvement to make people safer during extreme flood risk.

I think it’s a good idea to give councils control of tax and spending for flood defences, with input from the rest of the community about which measures are implemented. I think it could lead to much higher levels of investment and community engagement, with industry experts still giving good advice to help make communities more resilient to flooding events.

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