Holding back the waves: a plan for North Wales

A beach in North Wales

North Wales is vulnerable to flood risk – but the government also sees this deprived region as a priority area for new housing and economic development. How can Wales create new jobs and better housing while protecting its citizens from threats linked to climate change? Reagan Duff reports

FROM THE EPIC of Gilgamesh to Hopi tales of sailing into the Fourth World, many ancient cultures have flood myths, stories that pre-date the Neolithic era, that tell of communities lost to or born from rising seas.

In Wales, the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod tells of a sunken kingdom beneath Cardigan Bay. This folk tale about a drowned world provides a cautionary tale for modern Wales. Today, 220,000 properties in Wales are at risk and 65,000 at significant risk of flooding from rivers or sea, a figure which will only increase as climate change brings heavier rain and stormier seas.

The North Wales coast, which supports tourism – earning £2.5 billion annually, one of the country’s largest industries – is particularly vulnerable. Sea-level rise will increase the threat of tidal flooding, expected to account for 70 per cent of flooding in Wales by 2080, up from half in 2002. Flooding already costs Wales more than £200 million a year.

North Wales is one of the UK’s most flood-prone regions. When MoneySupermarket studied 1.25 million flooding cases, it named Victorian holiday resort Llandudno the fifth most likely UK town to flood. As Natural Resource Wales’ Flood Development Advice Map shows, the whole coastal region faces a marked flood risk, see map.

Forecasts suggest that Wales faces an 18-fold increase in annual economic damage from flooding by 2080. More coastal flooding means more erosion and damage, which threatens economic development and tourism, threatening prospects for sustainable growth in the northeast.

Coastal tourism, a major employer in North Wales, may become unsustainable if extremes and frequency of flood continue to increase, threatening vulnerable holiday homes. And the Welsh government wants tourism to drive economic growth.

The latest National Development Framework for Wales names the coast between Caernarfon and Deeside a key development region. The framework aims to develop northeast industry and services, to drive growth in North Wales.

But the northeast faces significant flood risk from its coastal location and rivers such as the Dee and the Clwyd. Vulnerable infrastructure here includes the North Wales Expressway and the coastal railway, both linking the UK to Ireland. Being designated a flood-risk area could hinder new infrastructure, stunting the region’s growth.

Any development that falls within Flood Zone C will need to factor in flood risk for planning decisions. That could create problems permitting developments within designated development zones; planning policy requires acknowledgement and mitigation of flood risk. It will cost more to build inside these flood zones, requiring additional flood risk and consequences assessments, mitigation measures, planning-application fees and other bureaucratic requirements.

The National Development Framework must factor flood risk into its planning policy to ensure that infrastructure supports resilient, sustainable development and does not put lives at risk. The framework sees these regions’ significant risk of flooding as a major challenge for regional development and regeneration. It seeks to co-ordinate strategic decisions on flood management and related investment.

In October, the Welsh government opened Technical Advice Note 15 (Tan 15) to consultation. Produced in 2004, Tan 15 supported the flood risk and development component of the Technical Advice Notes that shape planning policy in Wales.

The consultation suggests that highly vulnerable developments, including housing, should not be proposed within Flood Zone 3 on grounds of flood risk. It wants highly/less vulnerable development within Flood Zone 2 to face flood-consequences assessments and other strict tests based on proximity to effective flood defences.

Although this may not alter the original Tan 15 guidance, this could make it harder for developers and local councils to find suitable locations to develop to support the framework. Welsh government estimates suggest that North Wales will need 19,400 more homes by 2038. Given that so much of North Wales is exposed to flood risk, the country may struggle to meet that target.

Flood defences along the Welsh coastline protect 28 per cent of the coast and some £8 billion of assets. However, these defences have limited effectiveness in managing current risks of flooding and coastal erosion. The way climate change reshapes sea levels, precipitation and rates of coastal erosion will make these defences even less effective.

The Welsh government says it will struggle to build new defences due to constraints on – and competing demands for – public money. But if investment in managing flood risk continues at its present rate, the number of properties in Wales that face significant risk of flooding will increase by more than 75 per cent by 2035.

Funding would need to triple by then to protect the same number of properties from flooding. The figures highlight the scale of the challenge that Wales faces, even to maintain its flood-risk defences and in making existing infrastructure, businesses and communities resilient to climate change.

Wales has already done a lot to tackle flood risk in the north. The Flood and Coastal Erosion Management Programme has allocated £56 million to improve flood defences across Wales. It has identified where best to improve flood defences, including areas in North Wales, having taken a holistic approach to consider the likelihood and impact of flooding, the number of properties that will benefit and the ecological and recreation benefits.

Thanks to this programme, flood defences have been upgraded in Rhyl and Llandudno, which both lie within the coastal-development region. Rhyl’s £27.5 million flood defence comprises rock armour to raise the existing sea wall, protecting up to 1,650 homes.

There are other instances across North Wales where local councils have recognised that they need to improve their sea defences. Recent projects across Anglesey, Gwynedd, Denbighshire, Conwy and Flintshire aim to make the coastal region more robust.

These are the kinds of defences that will be vital if the Welsh government is to meet the additional 19,400 houses required to meet demand in North Wales by 2038 and an overall 114,000 homes across the whole of Wales.

North Wales is a deprived area; 51 per cent of new housing needs to be affordable – that’s 10,000 new homes by 2038. StatsWales lists 13,000 affordable housing submissions granted across Wales, but less than half delivered.

North Wales’ poorest communities are also most vulnerable to coastal flood risk. Areas within the designated development zones have official unemployment rates of 4.4 per cent, against a UK average of 3.9 per cent. The area has high levels of seasonal unemployment. More than quarter of people living in North Wales are over 65, indicating greater need for healthcare and transport. These communities need affordable, resilient new housing.

Last year, the Welsh government published its Draft National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management in Wales, for which the consultation period closed in September. The strategy aims to address flood risk across Wales through five main objectives:

  • Improving our understanding and communication of risk
  • Preparedness and building resilience
  • Prioritising investment to the most at risk communities
  • Preventing more people becoming exposed to risk
  • Providing an effective and sustained response to events

The strategy aims to manage flood risk while acknowledging the need for redevelopment and growth set out in the development framework. To ensure that growth takes place without increasing the region’s flood risk, the strategy aims to apply these objectives by:

  • Creating a Flood and Coastal Erosion Committee to consider the need for changes to legislation to clarify or improve flood and coastal erosion risk management in Wales by 2021
  • Delivering annual topographic surveys by Wales Coastal Monitoring Centre to enable coastal groups to measure change in the areas most at risk
  • Having Natural Resources Wales publish new Flood Risk Assessment Wales maps online by end of 2019
  • Having Natural Resources Wales provide annual data from all sources, to show how many homes and businesses face high, medium and low risks of flooding
  • Updating Tan 15 by 2020, recognising the flood risk information now available to local planning authorities. A document which is currently in a consultation process
  • Taking a joint approach – Welsh government, coastal groups and Natural Resources Wales – to develop coastal-adaptation guidance for publication by 2021.

All of this highlights the Welsh government’s determination to provide a well-researched, well-communicated approach to managing flood risk in Wales, that balances flood risk’s environmental demands against the country’s growth needs.

Forthcoming publications, including the Coastal Adaptation Guidance and the updated Tan 15, will identify how to manage flood risk within the development framework’s ambitions. All of this highlights the role flood risk plays in development planning.

As sea levels rise, and as storms become more frequent due to climate change, Wales will have to acknowledge and make more allowances for flood risk for its development plans to succeed.

Article by Reagan Duff in the March edition of The Environment

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