Are we doing enough to increase resilience to flooding?

Another autumn statement has come and gone, which has turned out to be the last, with the chancellor cancelling the practice introduced by Gordon Brown. With the imminent prospect of winter flooding, and the longer-term spectre of larger and more frequent storms, did the statement provide any hope for beleaguered communities?

In short, yes. The main announcement was the increase of investment to £170m for flood defence and flood resilience measures. Of this, £20m will be used for new flood defence schemes, £50m for rail resilience projects, and £100m to improve the resilience of roads.

After the significant floods experienced across the country in recent years (and recent weeks), this spending announcement is positive. For too long the answer to flooding has been resistance: keep it out. Increasingly, the rhetoric is about resilience instead; a recognition that we can’t hold the waves at bay. It’s therefore encouraging that the autumn statement identifies the need for resilience, particularly for major infrastructure such as road and rail.

The recent National Flood Resilience Review called for more investment in temporary and permanent flood defences over the next ten years and Theresa May has even placed three battalions of troops on standby to assist in the defence and clean-up from flooding this winter. However, as effective as hard flood defences can be, even the newest ones can be breached. There’s always a bigger storm around the corner, and the effects of climate change are set to make ‘extreme’ events more normal in coming decades.

The new funding is a step in the right direction, but as well as funding hard defences, it would be beneficial to see the government leading the way by investing in longer-term catchment solutions that will increase resilience to flooding deep into the remainder of the 21st century.

There is already a call from within parliament to take this longer-term approach, specifically the recent select committee report, Future Flood Prevention.

This Commons report considered a longer horizon than the National Flood Resilience Review, and contained a recommendation for more widespread application of catchment scale measures such as ‘natural flood management’ approaches.

This is an approach that has been gaining visibility in recent years. Natural flood management encompasses a portfolio of approaches and techniques to store and slow rainwater. Examples include trees, ‘leaky’ dams, wetlands, swales and ‘greened’ roads and public spaces. In this sense it’s nothing particularly new, and on its smaller scale it overlaps with the softer elements of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS).

Rather than providing a sole ‘big ticket’ solution to flooding (such as hard flood defences), a portfolio of smaller interventions providing marginal gains that accumulate through the catchment can be more effective. As well as conveyance and attenuation of flood water, they can also provide amenity, attractive spaces and habitat, therefore making a big contribution to improving our collective health, as well as helping our citizens reconnect with the natural environment.

It’s too simplistic to paint ‘traditional’ hard-engineered solutions as bad and too short term, or to believe that natural flood management is the only answer in the long term. The reality is that we need both – in fact we need a broad portfolio of solutions and interventions at both large and small scales if the country is to become truly resilient to flooding.

No matter what happens politically between now and the next Budget, one thing is for certain, flooding is not going to go away, therefore we need to invest wisely in effective and long lasting interventions.


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