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We need our leaders to be seen Simon Harrison

The recent floods have demonstrated that leaders need to get onto the front line when disasters strike, and stand alongside their staff and the general public.

The Environmental Select Committee meeting on 6 January was an uncomfortable watch. Fellow engineer and Environment Agency chairman Sir Philip Dilley was under pressure for not returning from his Barbados home sooner to give visible leadership and comfort to the public affected by the severe floods over Christmas.

Just 12 months earlier another engineer at another select committee, Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, was given the same message by MPs after he stayed in Cornwall while chaos reigned for passengers post-Christmas 2014, due to overrunning engineering work. Carne, to his great credit, did not make that mistake this time.

The strong message from politicians is that, in a crisis, the public like to see their leaders.

And there are lessons here for us all.

Over the last decade infrastructure has gone from being a background necessity to centre stage in the economy.

Allied to that the country is dealing with changing weather patterns and increased numbers of people. Infrastructure is under strain and the engineers dealing with that infrastructure are increasingly being turned to by the public to allay fears and as a focus for anger when things go wrong.

Whether it is water in the streets, power outages caused by falling trees in extreme weather, near riots due to overcrowding at station refurbishments or motorways shut and people stranded because of snow, engineers are the people the public turn to, yes to blame, but also for the answers.

If the Duke of Edinburgh was right when he said “everything not invented by God was invented by an engineer” and that we are the solution to the problems created by growing global populations, then we need to step up to the mark.

Heaven knows there are thousands of us working over holidays and at night to keep the public safe, and comfortable. But we also need to be seen, vocal and involved at the top level.

We can no longer be in the shadows, and we pass the buck to the detriment of our whole profession.

Empathising with the public and being able to communicate and engage rather than lecturing them are still not our core skills. They need to be, not least because there are going to be some difficult messages to communicate.

The Environment Agency is gently trying to do that as I write. New chief executive Sir James Bevan explained to MPs who didn’t really want to hear the message that there is no such thing as 100% protection for everyone. Individuals have to take some responsibility for protecting their own property, he suggested. His deputy David Rooke, out in the streets at the height of the floods, had the same message though, again, people were trying not to hear it.

Much money can be spent on raising barriers, upstream storage and river dredging, and on wholesale catchment management. But the message from the Agency is that the public themselves will need to do more to protect their own homes and businesses – by making them more resilient with waterproof plaster, concrete floors, electricity points high up on walls and non return valves in toilets as examples.

Who will cover the cost of that is a major issue. At an average of £20,000 per property the government’s £40M emergency flood funding would only flood proof 2000 properties. There are many, many more likely to be at risk, particularly after the National Flood Resilience Review reports in the summer, putting the bill in the billions. Our politicians need to initiate the debate with the public.

As well as innovating to minimise risks and costs, engineers need to be able to explain why investment must be made and what the options are – and be trusted to be impartial and honest.

There was much talk at the select committee about how future flood protection decisions need to be made by the local communities, requiring engagement from professionals with residents, businesses, the farming community which can be part of the solution or add to the problem, and with local government.

We engineers have to be at the centre of the community debate, not in the background. To get there, it’s essential that we all, leaders included, stand with our communities when the going gets rough.

We all need to be visible in a crisis.

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