Prevention is better than cure

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to tackling the health of Britain's drainage infrastructure. Only then will routine surgery make a real difference
Flooding
Flooding prompts emergency action but what about prevention? Photograph: Owen Humphries/PA

Prevention is undoubtedly better and much cheaper than cure when it comes to the National Health Service and indeed the UK's infrastructure.

But without the equivalent of an MRI scan, local authorities cannot see what the problems are or are likely to be, which is why it takes an emergency like the devastating floods of 2007 and 2008 to prompt wide-scale action – when it's largely too late.

Fortunately, that's all going to change. The Pitt Review, which followed the 2007 floods, and the new flooding and water bill, which goes before parliament later this year, provide guidance and advice to local authorities on how to take responsibility for local infrastructure and the implementation of measures that will mitigate risks to public safety.

Specific problems have traditionally been very difficult to diagnose, however – in terms of the infrastructure improvements that need to be made to prevent future disaster and damage.

That's because the major veins that make up the UK's ageing drainage systems remain a deeply buried secret. Decay and blockages aren't visible and worse still, the vast majority of local authorities and the engineers responsible for maintaining underground assets have had no means of getting a closer look.

Gathering the data necessary to build up comprehensive and accurate maps of the existing drainage infrastructure has been almost impossible, relying on astronomically expensive and highly laborious manual techniques.

But this is changing too. In addition to the range of specialist highways management information solutions available from suppliers such as Exor (who have worked closely with Gloucestershire county council for over a decade now) that help record and monitor information about roads, their component parts and all associated surveys and works, there are also significant technological developments in the field.

Self-propelling gyroscopic guidance techniques are among the newer solutions being rolled out to enable the authorities to gather the data that is so badly lacking - where their assets are and how bad a state they're in. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging is also being introduced to permanently mark underground assets so that they can be monitored more effectively.

Gloucestershire, so badly hit by the 2007 floods, has received a grant to use such techniques so it can collect the missing data and implement cost-effective measures that will help lessen the impact of future storms.

The key to prioritising and focusing cost-efficient spending is to know exactly where the problems will emerge and the causes beneath the symptoms. Currently, the Highways Agency spends a fortune each year repeatedly patching up road surfaces when often the real problem has been compounded by poor drainage.

In order to tackle problems effectively, authorities need a holistic approach to the entire infrastructure – from the roads to the hidden assets underneath, including utility pipes and cables as well as drains. Only with complete information about the concition of these assets and where these coincide can authorities hope to be in a position to implement effective, cost-efficient plans that will last.

With renewed responsibility for the safety of citizens relating to the maintenance of highways infrastructure, this is something councils can no longer afford to duck out of. Grants will be made available only to those who are proactive and show initiative. Those who drag their feet risk huge insurance bills, escalating premiums and increased risk of central government intervention in Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAA).

Doing nothing is clearly not an option – one decrepit part of a body can affect everything else.

If other authorities want to add years to an infrastructure network's life so that their budgets go further and invasive procedures are required less frequently, their first priority must be to secure a clear picture of what they are dealing with.

Only then can they hope to schedule routine surgery that will make a real difference in keeping longer-term problems at bay, buying even the sickliest cases a few more years.

Scott Tompkins is the asset manager for Gloucestershire Highways

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