“What I’ve seen over the last few days isn’t normal. It isn’t even the new normal. It’s going to get worse. We need to adapt and respond. And fast.”
“None of us saw this coming - at least not at this particular scale”.
“We’ll have to look at making the whole of the valleys resilient.”
“Over half a metre bigger than anything seen in 110 years. 2 of the biggest 5 floods ever recorded have happened in the last 4 months. It’s getting scary folks.”
“We were warned.”
We had indeed been warned (or were among those doing the warning). Countless times. We shouldn’t be surprised. Climate change is being strongly linked to the floods this winter.
But has austerity and its hollowing out of government budgets and local authorities, plus advisory bodies such as the sustainable development commission played a role, alongside climate change?
How much has the failure to learn the lessons of the summer 2007 floods and implement the recommendations of the subsequent Pitt Review played a role in the devastation wrought this winter?
In 2006 the Treasury commissioned Lord Stern to produce a review of the Economics of Climate Change. This seminal review looked in great detail at the evidence and unequivocally concluded that taking early action - both on decarbonisation and adaptation - would involve far less pain and cost than a belated, panicked response.
The 2008 Climate Change Act set the framework for delivering on that logic. Whilst its decarbonisation levers have been moderately effective, its lesser known clauses designed to push adaptation have been met with intransigence and hopelessly neglected.
In 2009 the then government instructed 16 of its departments to report on their climate adaptation risks and priorities. Despite the alarming climate trajectory since then, that has never been repeated, and it’s likely no government since 2010 has looked at them.
Back on flooding, a range of the recommendations from the 2010 Pitt Review were implemented – flood warnings, emergency response procedures, and the resilience of critical infrastructure such as power and water supplies were all improved. A Flood and Water Management Act was passed in 2010 to set the legal framework to delivering this.
Pitt recognised the complexity of flooding and how many different responsibilities must be drawn on when planning to avoid floods, managing and maintaining defences and responding.
Local authorities play a major role – they are in charge of development planning and building control – factors instrumental in ensuring development goes in the right place and is built the right way.
Pitt recognised the importance of surface water flooding and that in owning and managing the surface water drainage networks, local authorities were crucial. He proposed the establishment of Lead Local Flood Authorities – bodies at county or unitary council level, embedded within the local government structure who could provide the advice and guidance necessary to planning authorities so that housing and other development would no longer be built in areas that put their occupants at risk.
He also recognised the importance of working with nature. Drainage from new developments should use surface systems like ponds, raingardens and channels (known as sustainable drainage systems or SuDS) to store water rather than piping it as quickly as possible to a river. Moreover, such systems should be retrofitted into our towns and cities to provide extra storage capacity.
This new way of working was to be overseen by SuDS Approving Bodies embedded in the Lead Local Flood Authorities. They would approve new SuDS designs according to mandatory national standards and the local authorities would adopt and maintain them once built.
The financial crisis and changes in government philosophy after 2010 precipitated a gradual unravelling of much of this structure and capacity. In the early 2010’s most government policy proposals were prefaced with a statement that the government’s first priority was delivering economic growth. All else was secondary.
Housing developers railed against the perceived costs of doing drainage differently (though in Wales – where the approach was introduced a year ago – evidence is starting to come through that when well-designed SuDS can be cheaper and housing schemes are getting approved more quickly than before).
And then in 2015 the SuDS proposals and standards and approving bodies were canned. Schedule 3 of the Floods and Water Management Act – the law to take it forward – was enacted but never implemented.
As a result, we have a disjointed ‘planning-led’ approach which is applied haphazardly across the country by local authorities battling with imposed housing targets and insufficient capacity to properly scrutinise and enforce often sub-standard plans and designs.
A tiny proportion of council budgets is spent on planning, and this has reduced by around 55% since 2010. Lead local flood authorities are in a similar boat. Staff are too often ridiculously stretched, frustrated, demoralised. They know what they’re up against, that they’re fighting a tide they cannot hold back.
Those cuts run across a whole range of services impacting on the ability of councils to help residents recover and provide the social support and care necessary after a flood.
Central government recovery funds including £500 for residents, £2500 per property for businesses, £5000 grants for flood resilience measures and the Bellwin scheme for supporting local authorities after floods are retrospective sticking plasters not solutions.
And of course, the aim has to be that if communities can be made more resilient through more proactive measures, the need to draw on such emergency recovery grants might ultimately reduce.
A common theme this winter has been the number of households unable to afford flood insurance, despite the existence of the Flood Re government support scheme, because eating takes precedence over insurance premiums. This needs to be addressed urgently.
Government has of course pledged £4bn for new flood defences over the next 5 years; up from £2.6bn over the last 5. And more homes have been protected. This is welcome but in this complex picture new defences are just part of the story.
Discussions around what needs to be done to make communities better equipped to deal with events of the kind seen recently must all be caveated in the same way: Natural flood management, bigger defences, SuDS and green infrastructure, property level protection and affordable insurance can all be developed and implemented widely given sufficient political will and investment.
But it will take time for the trees to grow, the concrete to be poured, the flood doors to be installed.
The galling, sickening thing is that we knew what needed to be done well over a decade ago. We were on the right track. Then, ‘difficult’ decisions were taken, regulations were trimmed, and resources were slashed. Early action on climate change was postponed as the “green crap” was cut.
Without these cuts would these floods have been prevented? Arguably not. Might their impact have been less? Quite possibly. Either way, the response now will need to be more hurried and almost certainly more expensive.
When signing off a gruelling week for some rest recently, the seasoned Environment Agency manager for Herefordshire and Worcestershire who’d spoken of these events as not being normal expressed sorrow for those whose lives had been turned upside down.
It shouldn’t be you who’s sorry, Dave.
This time, all the lessons must be learned, ambitious delivery frameworks redeveloped, and adaptation placed at the heart of everything that we do.
Statement by Alastair Chisholm, Director of Policy - CIWEM
contact Alastair at Alastair.chisholm@ciwem.
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