Be prepared! Plan for flood resilience now

Mike Woolgar | 12 Nov 2014 | Comments

I read with interest an article in Infrastructure Intelligence, which suggests that the UK is not very pro-active in terms of flood resilience but from my experience that rather misses much of what has been going on for the past few years.

Historically towns have developed at riversides, benefitting from the access to water supply and to the generally flat land for building, or at the coastline benefitting from transport links and trade opportunities. Events such as 1947, 1953 and 2007, not to mention the winter flooding along the Thames in 2014, show that we have managed to build an awful lot of our economic infrastructure as well as our housing in areas at risk from flooding, but much of this is already “locked in” to the system, and until recently there was pretty much unfettered development in such areas.

This was a significant weakness in the planning system: that the local planning authorities did not have to refer to any flood authority when designating land for development nor did they have to submit plans for consultation to such a flood authority. The almost inevitable result of this was that local authorities which benefitted from the economic stimulus and from the business or domestic rates from new development were keen to give permissions.

This is changing, with the Environment Agency as the competent authority now a statutory consultee for developments. The Executive Director for Flood Risk and Coastal Management at the EA mentioned at a flood resilience conference during the first week of November that since the EA have been consulted the majority of new developments are properly assessed for flood risk and permissions are not granted for badly located or inappropriate development. The EA is not consulted when small housing developments are promoted – fewer than 10 dwellings – so it is possible that some of these are still getting round the system but the trend is positive.

Flooding and coastal erosion risk are fully recognised in Government as a risk for housing, infrastructure and the economy. The National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies published by the Cabinet Office has, since 2008 at least, had coastal and inland flooding as two of the most notable risks. The Environment Agency is responsible for developing plans for improving flood risk management, working with other infrastructure providers (HA, Network Rail, generators), developers and local authorities to plan, design, finance and construct defences, warning systems and recovery plans.

Is enough being done? This is a political and economic question; it would always be possible to throw money at a problem and “solve” it but money is always scarce and competed for. Some areas will become too expensive to defend and the recent deal thrashed out between Government and the ABI to establish a sort of “captive” flood re-insurance fund is intended to provide a 20-25 year lifeline to residents and businesses in these difficult areas so they can invest to adapt or relocate. Resilience is not just about providing flood defences!