Preparing for Winter Floods: the National Flood Resilience Review – September 2016

Earlier this month the Government published the results of the first stage of its review examining how the UK can be better protected from future flooding and extreme weather events. The ‘National Flood Resilience Review’ (NFRR) began in January, initially chaired by Oliver Letwin MP in his then position as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Led from the Cabinet Office but coordinated through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the NFRR is a direct response to the severe storms and resultant flooding which hit large parts of the North of England and Scotland in the immediate run-up to and during Christmas 2015.

The emphasis of the Review is on increasing the resilience of key infrastructure at risk of flooding – primarily water, electricity and telecommunications serving over 10,000 – 25,000 people, depending on which utility is being considered. Core cities are another significant focus. There is no mention of food, farming or rural communities, which is perhaps to be expected but which has attracted criticism from the National Farmers’ Union, amongst others.

The Review has found that the current Extreme Flood Outline map used by the Environment Agency to plan for flood risk, and which encompasses 12% of the land in England, is scientifically robust. For the next 10 years, the Review concludes, the Outline can be used as a reliable tool to show which areas of the country are the most likely to be affected by flooding. However, modelling by the Met Office, verified by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, indicates that monthly rainfall totals within some areas of the UK could be 20 – 30% higher than recent extremes in the next decade.

The Government has already committed £2.5 billion, plus an additional £700 million, for new flood defences, maintenance and repair, up until 2021. These announcements were made in successive budgets. The NFRR announces that £12.5 million of this £700 million funding will be used for in temporary flood barriers, mobile water pumps and incident command vehicles, along with £0.75 million in grants for flood rescue teams to maintain their equipment.

The Review identifies 530 infrastructure sites at risk of flooding in the coming winter. The solution outlined to deal with this is to deploy temporary flood defences, as permanent defences – although acknowledged by Government as preferable – either cannot be deployed in time or do not offer value for money. The £12.5 million will be used to supply these, held by the Environment Agency at locations where they can be deployed quickly. However the Government acknowledges that only 30-40% of the sites will be suitable for the temporary defences, whilst the defences themselves have a 20-30% failure rate, although this can be reduced with good advance planning. Electricity companies and water firms have agreed to work with the Government to enhance the resilience of their sites and to deploy temporary defences ‘where appropriate’.

Longer-term, Defra is to work with the Environment Agency to develop a post-2021 strategy for flood risk management, considering what role is most appropriate for Government and what communities and individuals themselves should take responsibility for, with some Government support. In a time of limited Government spending, a priority is to find a means to finance flood protection. A pilot project in Sheffield, as a ‘core city’ is seen as significant by Government. An expert group will identify flood defences that, once designed and installed, can add amenity value to the city, ‘beautify’ the cityscape and lead to development opportunities that can bring economic growth. This economic uplift will pay for the defences. Such ‘self-financing’, if the pilot in Sheffield yields the hoped for results, will then be rolled out to other core cities and smaller towns.

The Government does acknowledge the value of natural flood management in the Review, albeit briefly. The forthcoming 25-year plan for the natural environment, currently being prepared by Defra, is the vehicle for delivering this. Whole catchments will be managed ‘intelligently’, ‘sophisticated modelling’ will examine catchments to see how flood risk can be managed through activities in different parts of the catchments, whilst ‘a pioneer project’ in Cumbria will test and demonstrate this approach. The 25-year plan will also ‘strengthen the role of partners’ in catchment management.

Overall, the first stage of the National Flood Resilience Review represents a step forward to improve protection for infrastructure at risk of flooding over the coming winter, but communities may question whether it goes far enough to provide them with assurance that the severe flooding of their homes and businesses, as opposed to utilities, will be addressed adequately in the short-term, as in fact some have done. In the longer-term, much seems to depend on the 25-year plan for the natural environment as a means to manage flood risk across whole catchments. Yet there has been concern expressed by some that the Government’s developing policy here and the planned 25-year strategy for food and farming are evolving somewhat in isolation from one another. To be effective, flood risk management taking a whole-catchment approach must by necessity look to farmers, rural land owners and managers as partners in the management of water, slowing the flow to those downstream. In moving forwards with flood-risk management,  an integrated approach in both policy and practical terms is required.

21st Century Challenges: Flooding

On 8 November, the RGS-IBG will consider how the UK Government can deliver an effective and sustainable long-term flood-risk management strategy, in the latest in our ‘21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum’ series. Full details of the event and how to register are here

On 11 March 2017, the Society will convene a public meeting at the Rheged Centre in Penrith, Cumbria, examining how in the face of increasing flood risk, communities can come together to use local knowledge to build resilience. The event will consider whether the Cumbria Action Plan is likely to be effective and whether the experience of Cumbria’s communities can  help to deliver a national flood plan. Further information is here


Image: Flood. Howard Lake, Flickr.