The ferocious storms and heavy downpours at the end of 2015 contributed to one of the wettest months in the UK since records began. And with saturated soils and rain still falling in early 2016, the flood risk continues for many parts of the UK. Graham Haughton and Iain White argue that Government flood policy has once again been found wanting, with responses to the Great Floods of 2015 following an all too predictable pattern.
After the Somerset floods last winter, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article, written by Graham Haughton and colleagues from Hull University, suggested a checklist for how the media and politicians respond to new major flood events. Sadly, virtually all of the boxes had been ticked within a week of the December 2015 floods in the North West, Yorkshire and Scotland.
Whilst the precise nature of the recent floods might not have been predictable, the immediate political and journalistic response certainly has been. It’s time to accept that it is not just the floods that reoccur, but the public conversations too.
Despite repeated calls from scientists and the public in recent years for a fundamental rethink of flood policy, it remains essentially the same – the radio wakes us all up with the same alarming news and Groundhog Day begins anew. It’s time to both acknowledge the recurring nature of the disaster-response cycle and the need to design steps that have the potential to change it.
Given the most recent promise to undertake a major rethink of government policy, what should government consider doing? Below, we’ve outlined a multi-scalar approach for developing an integrated approach to flood policy:
At the building scale, more needs to be done to educate developers, homeowners and businesses about the range of available resistance and resilience measures that can be used to help in the event of future floods. Insurers also need to recommend this approach and accept that smart recovery should promote adaptation over restoration. Equally, the limits to what flood protection measures can achieve needs to be made clear: they cannot prevent all floods, but what they can do is reduce risk levels.
At local government level, all local plans need to be flood proofed and developer pressure to build on flood plains without appropriate mitigation strategies needs to be resisted. The rapid onset of extreme events as the ‘new normal’ means that plans will be quickly out of date and the conventional scientific approach of using the past to predict the future is less reliable. Areas delineated as being at high, medium and low risk appear to be subject to increasingly frequent change.
Specifically, we propose a new ‘blue belt’ policy to improve flood protection around major rivers, coastal areas and other watercourses known to be at risk of flooding. For built up areas we need funding and policies to create more soak ways and water retention areas that would act as parks and riverside walkways in everyday use, but become readily convertible as flood retention ponds when required. This approach has proved to be successful in cities as diverse as Curitiba in Brazil and Glasgow.
Given the growing concern around surface water flooding and the inadequacy of some of our aging urban drainage systems, priority must be placed on upgrading these. Urban drainage standards need to be revisited as a matter of urgency.
Regional and catchment scale
But local policy on its own will not be enough, given that flood policies in one area will almost always require integrated policy interventions in surrounding areas, upstream and downstream. To address this issue, we need more effective regional and catchment scale thinking. The introduction of ‘softer’ less powerful policy initiatives such as catchment flood management plans has clearly been ineffective at providing the overarching governance and strategic approach that has the authority to bring stakeholders together. A new approach is required for future flood policy governance at all scales, but improved catchment level powers and funding are essential for integrating policy across local areas.
Planning policy needs to be strengthened at national level to require active management of land for flood risk prevention purposes. This would include new rights to intervene over agricultural usage, something that historically the planning system has been discouraged from engaging with. In our view, we are now in a new era and a new approach is required which is outlined in our recent paper in Town and Country Planning.
The management and usage of upland areas in particular need to be fundamentally rethought, which will require a national conversation to ensure that the public, landowners, and visitors appreciate why landscapes will change, as more shrub and tree cover is brought in as a means of improving water retention at source. Agricultural grants need to be made conditional on not over-stocking land where soil compaction is a concern.
We will need to make tackling global warming a central part of a multi-scalar approach to flood policy. Extreme weather events have become the new ‘normal’ – there will be no reversion to earlier climate patterns until we have addressed global warming. The majority of climate scientists tend to agree on two things: that recent extreme weather events are unprecedented and that we will continue to experience more of them.
These proposals accept that whilst flood protection measures are helpful, as the December 2015 floods have made clear, we need to do much more. None of these proposals will be without their critics. Vested interests will always try to ensure minimal change to existing policy. Measures which require strong state direction and change the status quo run the risk of being simplistically pigeon-holed as ‘red-tape’ on business efficiency. The alternative, however, is that we continue with our Groundhog Day approach to flood policy, but with the unpleasant twist that with each repeated failure to understand the consequence of our actions, things get worse.
A version of this blog first appeared in Town and Country Planning.