How can the UK move towards a comprehensive strategy for sustainable flood risk management for the next 25-years?
A policy forum event convened by the Society brought together experts in flooding and flood management to discuss issues in existing flood policy, and options for change.
Flooding and coastal change poses risks to communities, businesses and infrastructure that are set to worsen as the climate changes. Severe flooding in winter 2015-2016 prompted debate on the effectiveness of UK flood management strategies and structures. In May 2016, the Environmental Audit Committee reported that the UK Government lacked a long-term strategy to manage the risks from flooding and to build resilience. Later that year, Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee released a report which found that flood risk management systems were unfit for purpose, and that current structures simply ‘do not work’.
See the infographic below for more on the threat from flooding:
Event infographic by Greg Stevenson: www.greg-stevenson.co.uk
A panel discussion convened by the RGS-IBG explored the development of a long-term, comprehensive strategy for flood risk management in the United Kingdom. Expert panellists, and the professional audience, considered how flood risk can be effectively managed across landscapes and communities, touching on the following questions:
How can we effectively manage flood-risk in our urban environments and our farmed landscapes?
How can we build resilience within communities and what role should central and local government play in this?
What insights can an appreciation of space and place bring to flood-risk management? For example, research on river and landscape dynamics and an understanding of historical change.
The panellists agreed that fundamental change was required in how flood management and flood defence is viewed in the UK. They identified challenges ranging from siloed working practices in Government to the need for farmers to work together to manage catchments consistently, to the need to establish individual and community resilience complementary to central support.
Martin Rogers (National Farmers Union) discussed the impact of flooding on farmers and productivity, noting that asking some farmers to sacrifice land to prevent others flooding may be problematic.
Carly Rose (Mary Dhonau Associates flood consultancy) pointed out that insurers prevent a barrier to increasing flood resilience in the refurbishment of flood-damaged homes, insisting that ‘like-for-like’ replacements are installed, rather than flood resilient measures.
Professor David Sear (University of Southampton) discussed the physical geography of flooding, highlighting that floods will become larger and more frequent in both the uplands and lowlands of the UK as the climate changes.
Professor Colin Thorne (University of Nottingham) argued that social and institutional barriers – including public perception of non-traditional flood management - presented greater blockages to innovation than scientific and technical barriers. He highlighted that most of the 5.2 million homes in the UK at risk of flooding are located in urban centres, and that simply increasing “grey infrastructure” will not provide sustainable flood management.
The panel also gave examples of how resistance to change and new approaches could be overcome, and suggested routes to positive outcomes for flood risk management.
Thorne suggested moving away from ‘flood defence’ to flood resilience – accepting the presence of water and its benefits, while Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell said rather than stop floodplain developments, residual risk and options like evacuation should be clearly explained and available.
Martin Rogers said that farmers are willing to engage with flood management, but need safeguards for the most fertile farmland as 58% of the UK’s most productive agricultural land is on floodplains.
The discussant, Hazel Durant (DEFRA) From central government, highlighted 2016 funding commitments from Government to 2021, and anticipated the launch of the 25 Year Environment Plan, which was published in 2018, with the first progress report in 2019. This was also supplemented with the Surface Water Management Action Plan (2018). The 2020 budget allocated £5.2 billion for flood defences between 2021 and 2027, while also promising a £200 million place-based resilience programme over the same period. She also reported that colleagues were collaborating across flood risk management, agriculture and food within Defra.
Other panellists shared their research and practice to demonstrate effective alternative approaches to flood management.
Discussing methodologies, Prof Sear noted that paeleoflood sediment records provide evidence of large floods in the past, and as such could be integrated into existing flood modelling to better inform planning and management decisions.
Prof Thorne outlined a ‘whole systems approach” to sustainably address flood risk in urban areas. Drawing on the work of the EPSRC-funded Blue-Green Cities project, he called for integrating ‘blue’ and ‘green’ infrastructure (such as: natural drainage channels; ponds; waterways; wetlands; open spaces; parks and gardens) into urban flood systems, which can mitigate flooding while delivering ecosystem services. He highlighted Newcastle as one city which has been innovative in adopting this approach; partly with the EPSRC project Achieving Flood Resilience in an Uncertain Future. The project investigates how blue-green-grey systems can make UK cities resilient to flooding, and continues to generate outputs and deliver events.
Professor Whatmore outlined her experience of working the community in Pickering, North Yorkshire, to include local knowledge of flooding to improve the use of catchment water resources and find alternatives to a proposed flood defence scheme – a concrete wall through the centre of the town. The scheme implemented ‘Environmental Competency Groups’ which resulted in the installation of upstream ‘natural flood management’ measures along with grey infrastructure. ‘Slow the Flow’ was estimated to have reduced the chance of flooding in Pickering from 25% in any one year to less than 4%. Professor Whatmore acknowledged this work was resource-intensive, and explained how she was trialling cost-effective elements of the Pickering work in other locations.
Finally, Carly Rose presented case-studies on how individuals can improve their own flood resilience and resistance of their homes, including the recently re-issued ‘Homeowners' Guide to Flood Resilience’. Installing measures such as ceramic floor-tiles, stainless steel kitchens, non-return valves and pumps can help householders return to normal life more quickly. She also highlighted the need for change in the insurance industry to allow betterment; the need to prevent developers ‘getting away with’ not meeting planning conditions on floodplains’; and in the accreditation and standards of contractors doing the work. The latter was a point echoed in the Bonfield Review of ‘Property Level Resilience’ measures.
The event served as cross-sectoral knowledge exchange and enabled expert researchers to understand policy and political challenges, while also sharing opportunities and state-of-the-art research with policymakers.
The Society released policy recommendations as an output from the event:
view the policy briefing
This event took place on 08 November 2016 and was part of the Society’s 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum series, which brought together members of the geographical community, practitioners, policy-makers and other interested parties to discuss and debate, build professional networks, and encourage critical thinking and informed debate on some of the biggest issues and challenges facing the UK.
Listen to a full recording of the event
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY NC 4.0), which permits use, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, provided the original work is cited and it is for non-commercial purposes. Please contact us for other uses.
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2020). Achieving sustainable flood-risk management in the UK. Available at https://www.rgs.org/21CC/flooding. Last accessed on: <date>
Featured image: Chris Gallagher/Unsplash
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