‘Radical alternative’ proposed to tackle UK flood risk

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Parliamentary Select Committee has today (2 November) released a report into flood risk management in the UK that the committee’s chair, Neil Parish MP, describes as ‘radical’ in its proposals. Setting out their view that the current systems of flood risk management (FRM) in this country are unfit for purpose, the Committee call for an overhaul of governance structures to ensure a more holistic approach.

Stating that current structures simply ‘do not work’, the EFRA committee recommend that the Environment Agency be stripped of its role in flood risk management, focusing instead on its environmental regulatory role, whilst a new body – the English Rivers and Coastal Authority – becomes the delivery body for national and main river FRM planning in support of a new ‘National Floods Commissioner for England.’ However, the proposals have been criticised by some, with Friends of the Earth describing as ‘terrible’ and ‘distracting’ the suggestion that the Environment Agency would no longer have responsibility for flood risk management. In a piece for the BBC, Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin questions whether a ‘massive organisational reform’ is at all practical for the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) at what is a challenging time for Government. The Government, responding to the EFRA committee’s proposals, has stated that it sees no need for structural change.

The report sets out a number of recommendations, beyond governance structures, regarding how flood risk management can be improved. Flooding is an extremely challenging issue for the UK, with KPMG estimating that the winter 2014-15 floods caused up to £5.8 billion of damage. Land use practices and projected increases in rainfall (the National Flood Resilience Review projects that rainfall could increase by 20 – 30% within the next decade) mean that the threats from flooding are severe and increasing. In May 2016, the Environmental Audit Committee, reporting on its own inquiry into flooding, argued that  the Government lacks a long-term strategy to manage the risks from flooding and to build resilience. Instead, they argued, Government reviews are commissioned in the short-term, in response to major flooding events, rather than Government proactively developing plans to respond to rising flood risk. In this latest report, the EFRA Committee has recommended that by the end of 2017, Defra publishes a ’25-year ambition for flood risk reduction for communities in England, against scenarios for different climate change outcomes’, along with an assessment of the funding required for these scenarios.

A number of recommendations from the EFRA Committee echo those from other recent reports into resilience to flooding, namely the National Flood Resilience Review and the Bonfield Review of property-level resilience measures. The Committee calls for better communication of flood risk to those in areas liable to flooding, a recommendation from the National Flood Resilience Review which is being taken acted on at present by the Environment Agency through their two-week #floodaware campaign, calling on people to know their own flood risk (1 – 15 November). The Committee call for better communication too to householders of the fact that Flood Re is a transitory scheme and that people must take responsibility for improving the resilience of their homes. Those giving evidence to the Committee picked up on the lack of incentive provided by Flood Re to encourage home owners to change their own behaviour in this respect. Yet the Committee also reflect upon another barrier, presented by insurers and identified by the Bonfield Review: only a third of insurers would allow a more resilient repair to be made following a flood. The Committee calls for flood insurance policy terms to allow for ‘building back better’ to ensure that flooded homes are more resistant and resilient to future flood events.

Projects such as ‘Slowing the Flow’ in Pickering have demonstrated the value of Natural Flood Management (NFM) approaches at small scales and the Committee suggests that there is enough evidence to roll out ‘catchment scale’ approaches for a ‘far greater number of small river basins’ . However, the report recognises the limited evidence that exists for the efficacy of NFM at larger scales and as such calls for the Environment Agency, other flood risk management bodies and academics to work together to ‘fill the evidence gap’. They recommend that Defra commissions a trial of NFM on a catchment of 100 -200 square kilometres by July 2017.

Storage of water on farmland can be used as part of a whole-catchment approach to managing flood risk, but necessarily has implications for farmers’ livelihoods. In giving evidence to the EFRA Committee’s inquiry, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) expressed ‘general support’ for the concept of storing water on farmland, with the caveat that schemes had to ‘work well financially for the farming system’. The Committee call for Defra to put flood risk management at the heart of new support schemes for farmers once the UK leaves the European Union, in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ referendum result. The Committee call on the NFU to work with farmers to develop, by the end of this year, ‘a detailed model for calculating the value to communities of land management that reduces flood risk’. The intention is for Government to develop an incentive scheme that accurately recognises the payment needed to farmers for the costs of submerging their land and the benefits this provides to downstream areas. The National Trust, as a witness to the Committee, expressed caution about long-term payment schemes for farmers however, arguing that long-term, the ultimate goal should be better land management practices as standard to reduce flood-risk.

Overall, the Committee’s report suggests some striking weaknesses in the UK Government’s current approach to flood-risk management, both at the level of governance and cross-departmental, cross-institutional working and at the level of implementation; for example in the use of Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUDS) in new developments and in the installation of flood resilience measures in both new and established buildings at risk of flooding. Ultimately, they call for a ‘root and branch review’ of how the Government manages England’s flood risk. It remains to be seen whether Government will respond favourably to this and other recommendations.

The RGS-IBG is organising a 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum on ‘Achieving sustainable flood risk management in the UK‘ on Tuesday 8th November. Panellists include the NFU and Defra and the Society will be launching our own set of flood risk management policy recommendations, drawing on geographical expertise. The event will be chaired by Roger Harrabin, BBC. Find out more and register to attend (£10 non-members/ £7 members & CSci, CEnv).

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