Flooding and coastal erosion: where do we go from here?

In 2020, England finally unveiled its long-awaited policy and strategy to tackle a new era of climate-related flooding and coastal erosion. Do these go far enough to improve our resilience and to build community-level support and engagement, asks Paul Cobbing

England finally published its new Flood and Coast Risk-management Strategy and updated its Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk-management policy statement in 2020. These long titles reflect the fact that delivering both has been a long haul.

Communities across the country contributed to the scoping workshops as early as 2017 and at every stage. A feature of this journey has been the collaborative approach and the level of agreement among partners and communities.

There has been a remarkable level of recognition that we need to be much more ambitious, that there are some really serious challenges ahead, that the combination of climate change and new development means that we need to develop an adaptive approach and that there is much more work to do, in and with communities.

From a community perspective, a whole section of measures relate directly to how people can be better supported and actively involved in managing their risk; how they can be better supported through the long process of recovery and how the third sector can have a greater role to play.

And so, between now and 2030 people and businesses will receive the support they need from all those involved in recovery after flooding so they can get back to normal quicker after flooding. We have also been promised that people and businesses will receive the support they need from all those involved in recovery after flooding so they can get back to normal quicker after flooding within that time frame.

Significant elements of this include how communities can be both supported better and be more active participants in developing measures and decision making. This has consequences for how risk-management authorities and others work.

But the rest of the measures are also directly relevant to communities, including how to create the climate-resilient places of the future.

In particular, the strategy and policy statement start to answer the questions about how we drive progress nationally, and in each place for all sources of flooding. There is a role for every sector in society and the challenge will be to bring all of that together.

There are some significant shifts in the way that we are now talking about flooding and managing flood risk and coastal erosion. These include:

  • A focus on the water cycle, including both flooding and drought; but we need to go further and take more integrated approaches
  • Catchment and shoreline-based approaches are important area-based concepts, but we need to do more, to shape places and to work at regional and national scales, such as finding ways to move water from areas that have too much to those that have too little
  • Multiple-benefit approaches mean that you can get more for your money but, just as importantly, solutions are much more likely to be right for a particular place if they encourage communities to shape those solutions
  • Many situations need multiple interventions, particularly to manage surface water. We have long recognised that civil engineering alone is not sufficient and acknowledged the value of natural flood-risk management and property protection. But it will be essential to promote many more types of intervention; if we fail to do so, we risk missing opportunities and provoking a public backlash against inappropriate measures.
  • Climate-change adaptation is now on the table and we need to learn quickly how to develop appropriate, adaptive pathways that clarify when we need to make decisions and how we avoid taking decisions that we later regret. At one level that might sound simple, but how can communities work with organisations when they are often the only continuity – and those with the greatest vested interest
  • Both documents now recognise the important role that communities have to play in managing water. The biggest complaint from people facing the risks of flooding and coastal erosion is that they don’t feel they are being listened to. This needs to change and increasingly communities are demanding that they participate actively in the decisions affecting where they live. How do we remove barriers and support active participation? There are some fantastic examples of communities leading, being the glue that brings partners together. What can organisations do to support and encourage this? We must learn from other sectors and from abroad to find ways to include communities as equitable participants and to involve them in decision making. Alongside this, we must tackle social inequalities, giving people the support they need to participate effectively.
  • Our approach to recovery needs to recognise that people need much more support, in many different ways, than is generally available now. We need to focus long-term support on those who suffer the most when a flood occurs, and get the support right
  • Put simply, there is a role for everyone in managing water. We can no longer put flood-risk management in a technical box, and leave it for the experts to sort out. Technical expertise is important of course, but we also need other skills and organisations. All parts of society have a role to play; how we involve them is one of the challenges ahead.

It was very clear, while developing the strategy, that we all face a huge journey to learn how to adapt to climate change and evolving flood and coastal risks. One consequence of the focus on adapting to climate change is that we need to restructure relationships with many communities, moving from being project led – in which the authorities regard engagement as a cost – to building long-term relationships that treat working with communities on an equitable basis as an investment in long-term resilience.

But there is more to do. Now is the time to rapidly develop action plans, programmes and projects. Risk-management authorities have been given the green light and we need to get going. Communities are impatient for change, as are many professionals. There is a great deal to do.

So where do we go from here? Two immediate questions are:

If we are asking communities to participate in managing water and flood risk, how do we value their work and knowledge when we are considering projects? To date, we only recognise paid-for knowledge and skills. Formally recognising communities’ input would create a major incentive for people to get involved.

What is our appetite for risk and ambition? How can we measure it nationally, what does good practice look like in each individual place and how do we know? How can we measure how well we are progressing?

The strategy and the policy statement are starting to answer both points. But in the long term, what does this mean for our approach to flood-risk management. How do we drive change? What resources do we need, where and from whom?

And all of this is thrown in to stark relief by the latest discussions about planning and development and local-government reform.

Will the new proposals support the concepts and measures in the strategy and policy statement? Will they support place shaping that encourages adaptive planning to cope with climate change? And will the proposals encourage people to get involved in creating the places that they live in?

And that’s before we consider Brexit and Covid-19 and who knows what will come next.

Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of these events and initiatives, we now have a policy statement and a strategy. Both signal a significant shift in our approach to managing water, flood risk and coastal change.

Both make it clear that we need to be much more ambitious to meet the challenges that climate change brings, that people in communities have a central role in working with risk management authorities and others and the new strategy has given us permission to act.

Now is the time to act, working collaboratively, positively and vigorously.

Paul Cobbing MBE

Paul Cobbing MBE

Paul has been Chief Executive of the National Flood Forum since 2011, a national charity that supports and represents flood risk communities.

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