MPs have outlined a ‘radical alternative’ model to the government’s planned changes to England’s flawed approach to flood risk management. Andy Nolan examines the proposals and their likely impact
England has seen more frequent and more hard-hitting floods in recent years. They’ve been uncompromising in where they’ve hit and have impacted on the vulnerable, the wealthy and the marginalised. Many major rivers across England have experienced flooding that has resulted in homes being lost, badly damaged and destroyed and in some cases people have lost their lives. Now MPs are calling for an overhaul of flood management to tackle the rising risk to communities from climate change.
Publishing the Future flood prevention report, the environment, food and rural affairs committee identified the lack of a robust national strategy and a short-term a focus to be obstacles to improving flood prevention. It follows the environmental audit committee’s criticism of the government for responding to specific flood events reactively, rather than proactively developing plans adequate to respond to rising flood risk.
The report also identifies governance problems where there is ‘poor clarity’ in roles and responsibilities for flood management and a ‘lack of transparency and accountability’ in national decision making not helped by ‘a proliferation’ of flood risk management bodies. The general lack of funding is acknowledged and, where it is available, is known to be complex and unwieldy.
A speedier response
In a sense, this feels like the reversal of the fragmentation created by the formation of the Environment Agency (and the NRA) and tackling the issue that has been so obvious to us all. A holistic view of flood risks, catchment management and protection can only happen if there is more joined-up thinking.
MPs also identified the failures of complicated and poor communication. While the science of meteorology and climate is, just that, science, it needs to be communicated in an effective way so that individuals, families, communities, businesses and civic structures can interpret, consider and decide their plan of action. The committee says flood risk communications must be simplified: current descriptions of a ‘1 in x year’ flood risk are confusing to the public and the Environment Agency and the Met Office must develop clearer methods by the end of this year, including maps showing all sources of flooding in one place.
The report acknowledges the Environment Agency and the Met Office are working effectively to improve flood warning systems, including developing innovative ways of using real-time data in some places. But, the report says, data sets need to be improved and new systems need to be used in catchments across the country and recommends the Environment Agency reports by July 2017 on how it can work with the Met Office to collect more detailed real-time data on rainfall and river levels.
What is heartening is the abandonment of the usual drawn out timescales that pander to lobbyists. Everyone can see this is urgent and the timescales in this report’s recommendations are short and demanding. For example, it recommends government should develop, by the end of 2017, a grant scheme to support those small businesses unable to secure affordable insurance to install resilience measures.
The thorny issue of planning
Of course, none of the report’s recommendations are endorsed by government yet and it will be interesting to see how some of the recommendations imposed on the planning policies will fare.
The committee states it had: ‘received conflicting evidence on whether planning rules on mitigating flood risk were effective’.
It adds: ‘Some witnesses considered that local decision-makers did not take flood risk sufficiently into account when approving new development. The CCC [Committee on Climate Change] noted that new floodplain development added to long-term flood risk and the costs of flood prevention. More than 30,000 new homes have been built since 2008 in areas with a 10% or greater chance of flooding in the next ten years.’
Spatial planning is, without doubt, the most important element to be integrated into the government’s flood prevention work. However, it can only deal with new developments. But with so many new homes needed this is an important part to get right.
Developers will surely lobby hard about the reality of the recommendation that ‘developers who fail to comply with planning requirements [will be] liable for the costs of flooding’. Lawyers will have a field day in proving or disproving the contribution a particular developer might have had on a flood event – but, nevertheless, this is an important and focused approach that will set the tone for future policy. The committee has clearly said it cannot be development at any cost.
The report also recommends farmland should be used in some places to store flood water. The National Farmers’ Union and Defra must develop storage approaches with low impact on farm productivity and appropriate incentives to recompense farmers.
Its recommendation that ‘water companies should be made statutory consultees on planning applications, and the right to connect surface water to a sewerage system should be removed’ seems logical, well thought through and will help join-up that fragmentation and remove the reactive elements allowing planning of water storage, movement and treatment to be better owned.
However, it will need good legislation to ensure that water companies work at the pace demanded of them in assessing their responsibilities.
A big ‘hurrah’ for the recommendation that ‘unless a voluntary code is finalised this year, the government must amend building regulations to make use of flood resistant materials in new buildings mandatory’. This would enable buildings to be more resilient and quicker to return to their purpose following a flood event.
The report has clearly drawn on the findings of the Pitt Review following the floods of 2007 and the evidence gathered from some of the pilot schemes underway which have attempted to illustrate the benefits of upland management, including the Moors for the Future and Slow the Flow projects. Both demonstrate the importance of using upland management to absorb, slow and release water at a rate that downstream capacity can cope with. It feels very much like a return to pre-agricultural revolution times.
Photo by Mike Dobson 1944