Living with Flooding in Cumbria: One Year On

In an article published in Geographical this month, writer Karen Lloyd reflects on the experiences of those who were hit by severe flooding in Cumbria in the winter of 2015/16. In a few weeks’ time, on 11th March, the RGS-IBG is hosting a public discussion meeting at the Rheged Centre in Penrith, bringing together for an afternoon those who have direct experience of flooding to reflect on the importance of local knowledge and practices to finding solutions to living with increasing flood risk. Karen’s article communicates clearly the trauma that many Cumbrian residents experienced through rapidly rising flood waters, and are still experiencing through their inability to yet return home. Over in North Yorkshire, also severely affected by flooding, a bridge in Tadcaster, which collapsed into the fast flowing river Wharfe on 29 December 2015, splitting the town in two has taken over a year to rebuild, with an announcement today that re-opening will once again be delayed.

Karen tells a story of domestic and commercial devastation, with streets filled with furniture and appliances that could not be salvaged, in the immediate aftermath of the flooding, giving way to empty houses and shops left to dry out. Many months on, Karen reports, one in five households are yet to return home and many households are unable to find a builder to carry out necessary repair works. Although South Lakeland District Council has made emergency hardship and resilience grants available, to fund the installation of flood gates, waterproof plaster and cement flooring, take up has been slow. ‘Building back better’ in this way would help to enhance the resilience of properties, in advance of future flood events. David Sykes, Director of the Council, attributes the slow uptake to a reluctance on the part of householders to accept what they perceive as a ‘hand out’.

There is no doubt that the winter flooding in 2015/16 was one of the most severe and extreme hydrological events of the past 100 years. An analysis by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology confirms that the floods rank alongside those of 1947 as the two most severe flooding events of the past century, at least. Yet the National Flood Resilience Review, published in 2016, makes it clear that severe flooding events will become more frequent in the future. Modelling by the Met Office, referred to in the Review, concludes that within some areas of the UK, within the current ‘Extreme Flood Outline’, encompassing Cumbria, monthly rainfall totals could be 20-30% higher than recent extremes over the next ten years.

The RGS-IBG has published a series of fourteen recommendations for policy-makers to improve the management of flood risk in the UK. These include the better communication of flood risk to residents in areas likely to be affected by floods, so that they can take appropriate action, to improve the resilience of their homes in advance and allow recovery more rapidly when flooding occurs. As Karen’s article discusses, the Government has already committed more funding to flood defences in the aftermath of the winter floods, ‘spending £72million…across Cumbria to better protect at least 4,300 homes from flooding. Up to £58million of this is new funding [that has been] agreed since December 2015’. But questions remain as to the Government’s long-term strategy for addressing flood-risk, with funding committed only to 2021 and much resting on the content of the  long-anticipated ’25-year plan for the natural environment‘, yet to appear from Defra.

Karen’s article describes a community hugely affected by flooding but coming together to try to help one another, and now slowly starting to rebuild their lives. But, as she concludes, ‘there is a communal holding of breath whenever rain comes’. It isn’t at all clear that Government has done enough to tackle the tremendous and increasing risks to communities that flooding poses, as a critical recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee suggests. Panellists at the RGS-IBG Policy Forum on ‘Achieving Sustainable Risk Management in the UK’, in November 2016, likewise called for ‘fundamental change‘ to the Government’s approach to flooding. Those convening at the Rheged Centre on 11th March from flood-hit Cumbrian communities will have the chance to make their own views known, to the Environment Agency and others, about how they feel flood risk should be managed in their towns and villages and across their farmed landscapes.

Karen Lloyd lives in Cumbria and is based in Kendal. She is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her books include The Gathering Tide and the forthcoming The Blackbird Diaries and she is a regular contributor to The Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’ column.

Image: S. Rae. Flooded England. Flickr.

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