Making our nation more flood resilient

Innovation Director, Paul Ellis, attended a Public Policy Exchange conference last week looking at designing effective flood strategies and solutions for our communities. His observations show that, as a nation, we are some way off co-ordinating an effective and holistic response.

Storms Desmond and Frank demonstrate that climate change is happening right now and our public adaptation to them needs to accelerate. Floods could happen anywhere, it is just a question of when. For example the 2013/14 floods saw more than 200% of the average rainfall across southern England, while in 2015 record rainfall totals were distributed across the north of UK, with devastating concentrations in Cumbria and York.

According to government statistics, nearly 1 in 6 properties are at risk of flooding in England. The first UK Climate Change Risk Assessment underlined the UK’s vulnerability to extreme weather and the increasing flood risk, highlighting the need for immediate action across the country.

In his opening address, Neil Davies – Environment Agency, Deputy Director Strategy Development, said that public ignorance of flood risk remains one of the biggest issues – lack of awareness before it happens means no precautions. Unless homeowners and businesses have been directly affected, they tend to ignore it and are swayed by a media agenda that moves on swiftly to other things.

To counter this, aside from spending £2.3 billion on flood defences, a major public awareness campaign will be launched by the Environment Agency about the risks and solutions available.

Joining upstream and downstream solutions together

There is now greater awareness of the coincidence of different flood sources and the need to revise our risk predictions and mapping to allow better flood risk management. But this needs to join up solutions for both upstream and downstream.

Downstream, homeowners and businesses need to become naturally more resilient and defend their property assets better. Organisations such as The Flood Advisory Service or Know Your Flood Risk are both raising awareness of the issues and how flooding invades the home, while connecting homeowners with BSI Kitemark approved installers of property level protection (flood barriers, replacement anti-flood airbricks and non-return valves). Enlightened insurers could and should give discounts for this resilience so that investment provides some degree of payback, rather than just ever higher premium or excess payments (Flood Re may not be around forever).

Seeking natural solutions to surface run off is the key. Councils and communities could fund retro-fitted sustainable drainage in urban areas, such as permeable paving, basins and grassed areas in flood prone locations.

Colin Thorne, Chair of Physical Geography from Nottingham University, spoke at the conference about the “Blue-Green Cities Initiative” where the creation of public green space can also be used to mitigate and convey flooding.

Upstream, adding back grassland, trees and hedges across set-aside farmland is a solution that is finally getting attention.  Government Grants already exist to create Ecological Focus Areas to promote re-greening. Trees consume water through evapotranspiration, improve soil infiltration, retard flow and prevent soil erosion, in one case evidence suggested a 40% reduction in runoff, but trees are not effective in all cases and form only part of the solution in upper catchment management.

Limited funding – but planning authorities can play their part

Co-ordinating ownership of the flood problem is another critical issue. Without incentives upstream, land managers may not be inclined to implement measures that benefit downstream users.

The Environment Agency has a remit for national fluvial and coastal flood risk but the scale of the task is immense and investment trends have sometimes been knee-jerk, in response to public pressure following recent extreme flood events.

Austerity and budget cuts have hit local authorities who have responsibility for flood risk management within communities. They will play their part in preventing the problem from getting worse by using the planning system to balance economic growth against unsuitable development.

Increasingly, guidance on Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) will be used by planning authorities to ensure new development contains natural infiltration. Water then naturally soaks away in its immediate location and isn’t channelled ever faster into rivers. Building regulations already state this, but Authorities can do more ensuring greater bite during planning submissions.

So, a combination of co-ordinated and targeted government agency support, lead local flood authority direction on sustainable development and community self-help is perhaps the best prescription for the near term.  It’s time to make changes, because the climate already has.