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Perspective on the National Flood Resilience Review

Ian Heijne | 19 Sep 2016 | Comments

The publication of the National Flood Resilience Review this week, which includes plans for improved rain and flood modelling; a £12.5 million increase in temporary flood defences; and a call to strengthen the protection of our infrastructure, has sparked much debate.

For me it is hugely important for a variety reasons. Firstly, the report has finally acknowledged public concern that there has been too much damage to property due to flooding in recent years. Secondly, it is evidence that the government has taken this opportunity to at last advance the technical understanding of flood risk – something that has been outdated for quite some time.

So does it achieve these objectives?  Yes and no. The emphasis of this review is on the impact of flooding on public services and infrastructure, which is important as disruption to the road network, electricity supply and water supply has to be avoided. Working closely with the water companies and telecoms, the government has gained agreement for some 530 vulnerable sites to be protected. This is good news.

This report has also undertaken a significant piece of research, carried out by the Met Office, to completely reshape the way that we predict rainfall, which is something that consultants like Atkins have needed for some time. Instead of looking back at recorded data and then using some ‘simple maths’ to attempt to predict what the future holds, the Met Office’s weather forecasting computers can now generate over 900 years of future rainfall predictions across the whole of the UK. This is a major step forward. From my perspective, we must move away from statistical analysis to this new synthesis based approach based on actual physical processes.

Importantly the findings of this review confirm that the ‘Extreme Flood Outlines’ (areas with a 0.1% annual probability of flooding), produced by the Environment Agency, and published on their website, are effective - they have been validated using the Met Office rainfall and provide good information on flood risk for planning purposes.

I am pleased to see that the review supports much greater use of temporary defences, which are seen as fast and adaptable, through the commitment to the Environment Agency for a £12.5 million spend for temporary defences. In addition, the government has gained commitment from the utility companies to also invest in temporary defences, which is again progress. 

So what is missing?

I think that the report fails to address the risk to individuals and their homes – and surely with the devastating consequences that a number of our communities have experienced as a result of flooding in recent years, this will not sit comfortably with a number of people. For me, there is a gap in the review's discussion on flood strategies and how that relates to people. I am of the view that we need to continue to ask how the public understand risk, how it feels to them, and what they actually want from these policies.

I have drawn a number of positives from the report and hope that some of the promised actions are followed through, including:

  • The work completed by the Met Office has to be progressed, the current predictions are monthly, and we need greater frequency (and at a more local level). This dataset would be powerful for future scenario testing and would empower the technical efforts to develop catchment wide solutions.
  • A much greater emphasis on the economic growth of communities is required, linking investment in flood defences to regeneration. Even if this means retaining risks. The acceptance that communities should be at the centre of decision making is essential. 
  • We need to consider flooding as a human issue. We need to bring social thinking into the science of flood risk and then maybe we can develop answers which the public can empathise with.