Previously occasional, major flooding in the UK is becoming an increasingly dependable disaster. Every year, western and northern parts of the country are battered by ‘unprecedented’ rainfall. Meteorologists on the news proclaiming that this kind of event happens only ‘once in a hundred years’ are undermined by the perceived frequency of their protestations. Even London is at risk from such events. Reports emerged last month that 57 tube stations are at high risk of flooding and TfL revealing that it is “only a matter of time” before serious flooding strikes. Flooding is not an issue that affects only some parts of the country; this is a truly national challenge.
Concerns about flooding are becoming more acute and can be traced to a series of processes. Urbanisation, changing land use and climate change are rightly invoked to explain ever more frequent and severe flood events that the UK experiences.
While the causes of the floods are certainly increasing, it could be argued that the country’s ability to tackle the threat is not keeping pace. Flooding can strike at any time of year anywhere in the country and risks in different circumstances often require idiosyncratic mitigation strategies, protecting the public and property from flooding is a huge policy challenge. In the context of the long-term causes alluded to above, the government must develop and implement corresponding long termism in its strategising.
The current approach has recently been critiqued for its apparent reactiveness by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee at a time when a more strategic vision for flood policy has never been so sorely needed. In the past, and with a well-funded Environment Agency alongside a stable capital investment plan for flood defenses, the reactive approach has, by and large, seen us through. However, the slew of cuts that have befallen relevant government departments as well as local authorities in recent years – especially in the context of climate change – has exposed the weakness of our traditional approach.
Noting the mounting need for a change on our approach to flooding, the environmental technology and services association, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), has convened an expert task force with experience in flood mapping, SuDS, Property Level Protection (PLP), public engagement with flooding and linked fields. After a period of consultation, the group produced a report, titled ‘Turning the Tide: Proposals to reform flood policy’ offering ten key recommendations to government policy and decision makers that will not break the bank.
Let’s start with the detail. ‘Turning the Tide’ calls for amendments to the government’s welcome new insurance company, Flood Re. Flood Re provides a receptacle that allows the insurers to pool their risk into a general fund, rendering the process of insuring property in flood zones more palatable (and potentially profitable). However, the plan only covers housing and in its current form the format represents a missed opportunity. Including large companies who would have changed the whole proportion of the funding pool, but including SMEs, businesses whose survival can so often be determined by a flood and are often the lifeblood of local economies should also have been protected by the scheme. A commitment to estimating premiums downwards when individuals improve their property’s flood defences could have stimulated those living at risk of flooding to commit to defending themselves.
Indeed, finding ways to give individuals control over their property’s flood risk quickly became a theme report, which goes on to advocate for the use of longer-term financial incentives, like a reformed Repair and Renew Grant, to encourage people to own their own flood risk. Rather than rolling out the RRG in the heady days immediately following a major flood event when money is famously “no object” in a somewhat patchwork fashion is no longer acceptable. Instead, government money should be available before flooding happens for people to improve their own defences. In the same vein, we can make buildings more resilient by making flooding a primary concern in the planning process – basements, carpets and electrics at floor level are out and attics and stone floors are in.
Continuing to clarify standards on Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) is a key issue that needs to be driven forward. SuDS replicate natural systems to drain away surface water allowing it to be released slowly back into the environment, thereby reducing flood risk requiring limited maintenance and operational cost – a flooding no-brainer. SuDS agenda was recently resuscitated after the issue was thrown into the Housing and Planning Act in the dying moments of the law-making process, but much more needs to be done to make the roll out of this green flood mitigation technique a reality. At risk of becoming too technical, Schedule 3 of the Water Act should be implemented as soon as possible.
Lastly, not forgetting the effectiveness of low-tech measures to get the word out about an impending flood, the way we interact with people in danger of flooding needs to enter the 21st century. Initiatives that publicise local river levels on Twitter are a useful start but more needs to be done. To start, we should make Environment Agency flood warning text messages opt-out rather than opt-in and even consider a Defra-credible flood app.
Although there is a focus on the granular, we need not shy away from more macro, strategic-level initiatives either. Calls for a national, transparent debate on what our flood defence priorities should be are growing ever louder. After reports this year that northern areas were receiving far less capital expenditure per capita than fellow citizens in the southeast, we should be clearer about what we want from flood defences: protect critical infrastructure, economic and population centres, or those who are more vulnerable? In this debate, we need to consider what properties we most value – should homes continue to be prioritized or does it also make sense to protect an important employer in a deprived or remote area?
Next, we need a flood measurement scale that works and is easily understood by the public. Major flooding being described as a ‘one in a hundred year’ event loses its meaning when the phenomenon seem to occur with such regularity – instead, we need a Richter Scale-style system to indicate severity. A new severity measure then requires consistency of use throughout the Met Office, the BBC and the Environment Agency with clear instructions that would allow the public to take appropriate action.
Furthermore, we need to approach data differently, and must work more collegiately to hold national data in one accessible place to improve our ability to map risk (as well as opportunity) associated with flooding. Defra’s recent push for greater transparency over its records must be embraced by flood professionals and academics. Meeting stakeholders in the middle by providing a searchable and accessible data bank will be a major challenge for the environment department in the coming years, but should unlock innovative flood solutions in the future.
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the report suggests that a restructuring of how the government delivers its flood policies should be considered. A new Water Agency could have overall oversight and management of water and flood issues with the EA remaining responsible over environmental protection. At the moment, Environment Agency staff working in all areas are valiantly drafted in to battle the immediate effects of a flood, potentially leaving gaps elsewhere.
The clear increase in frequency and severity of flooding has not gone unnoticed and of course, EIC is not the only body that has taken on the flood debate. After the Pitt Review in 2007 much progress has been made but plenty of Pitt’s 92 recommendations have yet to be implemented, despite support in government at the highest level. Spurred by the latest bout of flooding this winter, the government has launched several initiatives on flooding, including another review of government flood policy. The current review, led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (and widely revered cabinet brainbox) Oliver Letwin, could result in some overdue changes.
In totality, this means that there are both push and pull factors that make this the right moment to influence flood policy. The push factors have been made clear previously – climate change and urbanisation mean more floods will force us to change our thinking on how best to live with the renewed threat. The pull factor though is a political context in which flooding is (albeit intermittently) a top priority, where full reviews are being conducted. The government is in listening mode and those working on flooding outside government should take this opportunity to find its voice.