How to achieve ‘sustainable flood risk management’ in the UK: fundamental change

A fundamental change is required to the way in which we view flood management and flood defence in the UK: this was one of the take-home messages from the latest 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum, held at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) on Tuesday 8 November. Professor Colin Thorne, a member of the panel for the evening, drawing on the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment, suggested that we must move away from ‘flood defence.. to resilience, living with and making space for water and the opportunity to get ‘more from less’ by seeing all forms of water as providing multiple benefits.’ Yet Professor Thorne identified barriers to doing things differently, most namely ‘us’. He suggested that social and institutional barriers present greater blockages to innovation than scientific and technical barriers. Over the course of the evening however, all of the panellists gave examples of how such resistance to change and reluctance to support novel approaches could be overcome, with positive outcomes for flood risk management.

Professor David Sear, discussing the physical geography of flooding, presented a clear case for the need for change: higher magnitude floods are expected to become more frequent in both the uplands and lowlands of the UK as the climate changes. Different types of flooding are to be expected too: groundwater, surface water, fluvial and coastal flooding will all be significant. Landscapes are dynamic and adjust to accommodate changing patterns of flooding, including changes to hillslopes, headwaters and river channels. Flood models however generally assume that rivers are static and stable. Incorporating historical records of flooding, for example sedimentary paleoflood records captured from lake, swamp and coastal cores, can provide detailed documentation of flood magnitude and frequency over thousands of years. These approaches show that recent high magnitude floods are not unprecedented in much longer-term flood records, and that the UK Government and flood risk management authorities should explore how best to use historical records to improve model-based estimation of extreme events.

Professor Thorne suggested that a ‘whole systems approach is needed to address flood risk appropriately in urban areas. He drew on the work of the EPSRC-funded Blue-Green Cities project in suggesting that a sustainable approach to flood risk management in urban centres requires planners and others to ‘re-envision’ the planning, design, operation and organisation of existing and new urban water systems. It is not enough, Professor Thorne suggested, to simply keep adding ‘grey infrastructure’ to our cities; to install more and constantly bigger pipes to carry excess water. Instead we need to integrate engineered surface and piped systems with multi-functional ‘blue-green infrastructure’ and urban green spaces. The multiple co-benefits that result from the restoration of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ features such as: natural drainage channels; ponds; waterways; wetlands; open spaces; parks and gardens, provide a ‘blue-green advantage’ to cities such as Newcastle which have been innovative in adopting this approach. Both ‘blue’ and ‘green’ features recreate a naturally oriented water cycle, whilst contributing to the amenity of the city and delivering ecosystem services such as climate regulation, biodiversity, health and wellbeing benefits. Professor Thorne acknowledged however that grey infrastructure does still have a role to play in flood risk management, particularly with respect to high magnitude, low frequency events. A new EPSRC project (Achieving Flood Resilience in an Uncertain Future) is exploring how blue-green-grey systems can make UK cities resilient to flooding.

Professor Thorne was clear that it is urban centres which stand to be affected most in the event of flooding: it is in urban centres where the majority of the 5.2 million homes in the UK at risk of flooding are located and where the bulk of key assets and infrastructure at risk can be found. Flooding in urban areas has huge consequences for business, commerce and manufacturing and the financial scale of these impacts are generally grossly underestimated. However, said Martin Rogers from the NFU, the impact of flooding on farmers and the productivity of farm businesses is also significant. Asking a farmer to allow their land to be flooded to prevent flooding downstream, is in asking one business to sacrifice themselves to save another, he suggested. Farmers are willing to engage in discussion about how they can help in the management of flooding, but there must be safeguards in place to protect the most fertile farmland from floods, Martin stated, recognising that 58% of the UK’s most productive agricultural land is on floodplains.

Professor Thorne highlighted a major barrier to the implementation of ‘blue-green’ measures as the public acceptability of these approaches; encouraging communities to see them as making a genuine contribution to flood risk management, in place of traditional flood barriers. Professor Sarah Whatmore outlined her experience of working with one rural community to manage flood risk differently – in Pickering, Yorkshire. In starting work in Pickering, Sarah and her team wished to find a means of bringing ‘experts’ together with those with local knowledge of flooding, improving the management of catchment water resources and exploring alternatives to a proposed flood defence scheme – a concrete wall through the centre of the town. The success of the scheme implemented in Pickering as a result of the ‘Environmental Competency Groups’ instigated by Sarah and colleagues has been well-documented. Emerging from discussions between local people and flood experts, upstream ‘natural flood management’ measures, along with grey infrastructure, installed between 2009 – 2012 did result in some protection for the town from the winter floods of 2015/16. Professor Whatmore acknowledged that the Pickering work was resource-intensive, meaning that it could not be replicated in other places where similar approaches with local communities would be useful. Instead, Professor Whatmore and colleagues are currently trialling how to take elements of the Pickering work apply these cost-effectively in other locations.

Carly Rose demonstrated how individuals can take responsibility for improving the flood resistance and resilience of their homes, presenting case-studies from the recently re-issued ‘Homeowers Guide to Flood Resiience’. Installing measures such as ceramic floor-tiles, stainless steel kitchens, non-return valves and pumps can help householders to get their lives back to normal more quickly after a flood; in one example given by Carly, just one hour after the water has receded. Insurers are proving a barrier to these efforts however; many will not allow any form of ‘betterment’ in the refurbishment of flood-damaged homes, insisting that ‘like-for-like’ replacements are installed, rather than flood resilient measures. Change is required in the insurance industry and in the accreditation and standards of contractors doing the work: this was a point also echoed in the recent Bonfield Review of ‘Property Level Resilience’ measures.

Hazel Durant, Head of Water and Flood Policy Integration at Defra, said that Government had done and was continuing to do a great deal with respect to flooding but recognised that more work was needed. The funding commitment from Government to 2021 and additional money (£700m) announced in the March 2016 budget were all positive steps. Colleagues across flood risk management, agriculture and food within Defra were speaking to one another and the 25-year plan for the natural environment should be expected ‘soon’. However Roger Harrabin, in the chair, was critical of Defra’s approach, describing it as ‘sub-optimal’, with ‘fewer brains’ tackling the complex issues around flooding due to budget and personnel cuts in the Department. Hazel Durant appealed to all in the room, as experts, to engage with Defra; the Department must draw on external resources at a time when internal capacity is stretched.

There were differing views during the audience question and answer session regarding whether all built development on flood plains should be stopped. Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Flood Hazard Research Centre, expressed the view that development should not cease but that those living there should understand about the residual risk they face. People in such developments should be safe, with clear knowledge of evacuation routes. Professor Sear felt that many had misconceptions about floodplains, believing them to be places where water slowly built up, was stored and then drained away. In fact, he said, in the uplands floodplains can be inundated very quickly with fast-flowing water and sediment and would therefore be very dangerous places to build. A commentator from the Environment Agency said that in general developers did comply with planning regulations with respect to building in flood risk areas, but that it was up to local authorities, not the Environment Agency, to follow up and enforce this. Carly Rose was clear in her view that too many developers were ‘getting away with’ not meeting planning conditions and were therefore putting people at risk.

As with all of the issues considered as part of the 21st Century Challenges programme, there is no easy answer to the question of ‘how to achieve sustainable flood risk management in the UK in the long-term’. As Martin Rogers commented during his presentation, there are some issues that can only be tackled by taking a holistic view – a perspective that is integral to geography. Flooding is one such issue: to address this challenge effectively it is clear that traditional barriers need to be overcome. These range from addressing working in silos in Government, to encouraging farmers to work together – whether voluntarily or through a mandatory scheme – to manage land in catchments consistently. Individuals need to be encouraged to take responsibility for their own resilience and resistance to flooding; communities need to come together with experts, supported by local government, to develop community plans for flood risk management. None of this is easy, but the RGS-IBG, by bringing different groups together to broker relationships and begin discussions, has contributed a step along the pathway to finding solutions.

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