Flood reflections amidst a very modern British winter

With another wet winter bringing misery to thousands of households and businesses, two sector stalwarts Dave Throup and Mary Long-Dhonau have been sharing their reflections. Alastair Chisholm reports.

Here in the UK since the autumn, we've had unsettled weather patterns and during December 2023, some areas across eastern Scotland and in central and northern England recorded rainfall more than 70 percent above average for the time of year.

It’s official: 2023 was the hottest year on record. As climate scientists have long-warned, a warmer atmosphereholds more water vapour which means rainfall is more extreme.

In Met Office parlance, warmer, wetter winters are, and will increasingly be, our future. With eight named storms so far in the winter 2023/4, as of mid-January, it has been a wet one. The whole year was.

So the usual debate about whether all this is translating into higher flood risk and – on the basis that it is – what we should do about it in future, has been energetic. Discussing flooding during floods is always an emotionally-charged thing, understandably. It has terrible impacts on lives and livelihoods.

Climate change playing out before us

This year, homes flooded run into the thousands and extensive swathes of farmland have been inundated, with farmers either losing valuable cropsor unable to drill due to flooded or saturated ground.

Despite a multi-billion pound capital flood programme and a long-term flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy and roadmap, there is increasing concern amongst experienced commentators that without a radically more ambitious, multi-intervention approach events could start to run away from us.

The Met Office has pointed to climate change playing out now. This takes on a more visceral note when flood events happen more frequently. The widely-used term “a new normal” is, unfortunately, highly misleading as it suggests we have reached some kind of equilibrium. However, our future will be more extreme and unpredictable as already locked-in climate heating and feedbacks exert further effects on weather systems.

Dave Throup’s Twitter feed has been a source of evidence and hard-hitting observations all winter on the subject. He increasingly doesn’t mince his words – a benefit of retirement.

Make no mistake we’re in deep

Throup does a good line in authoritative and no-punches-pulled picture-painting both of both the stark climate reality being faced in the UK as well as the flood solutions needed. The ex-Environment Agency area manager’s experience of having to deal with a raging river Severn means he comes at it with a deep well of experience.

His plain-speaking depictions of increasing flood event return frequency and height and daily rainfall levels in places like Worcester, Upton, Hereford and Bewdley paint an arresting picture. In Hereford, 16 huge floods of five metres or more have been recorded since 1795. Of those, nine have been since 2000 and seven in the past five years. What was once a one-in-fifty year flood is now happening more than once every ten years. We’re seeing far more extreme levels of rain falling in a 24-hour period. Pretty compelling.

With the world and their dogs seemingly clamouring for more natural flood management, Throup urges people not to forget what conventional flood defences do – and have done over recent years – in terms of protecting communities too.

But, he’s clear “you can’t just keep going higher” with barriers and walls, pointing to the increasingly gargantuan pressures of water they’re holding back. And for others, raising them or building new ones ever-higher won’t be technically, financially or environmentally possible.

Despite many populist claims, dredging won’t work for flood defence purposes in many places but it can be important for heavily modified rivers in flat areas. SuDS should be mandatory.

While evangelists for various interventions push them relentlessly on social media and elsewhere, Throup is a realist and a pragmatist. Yes, re-wiggling rivers and re-wooding upper river catchments is great and vital in future flood management , but these kinds of things will need to be done at a landscape scale to have impact.

Farmers who store flood water and forego income from crops need to be encouraged and compensated.

Don’t forget about hard-engineered defences, but don’t get complacent if you live behind one. It will get overtopped one day; make sure you have a flood plan.

Polarisation of the issues doesn’t help and knitting all this together is complicated. But ultimately, he says we’re in deep crap, and it’s only going to get deeper: The evidence on climate change clearly points towards our futures being very different and current extremes are just a taste of what’s coming.

Throup observes: “The changes I’ve seen over the course of the last 20 years have been incredible and very worrying. And it’s going to get a lot worse, regardless of what happens to carbon emissions. We need to be planning and preparing on a grand scale. But we’re not. A step change in ambition and urgency is needed now.”

Sandbags at dawn

While Throup epitomises the multi-tool flood mindset we can only dream of our leading politicians having, another flood superhero has her laser beams fully trained on what you need to do if you are one of those people behind a flood defence that gets over-topped. Or even, you don’t have any defences to live behind.

Mary ‘queen of floods’ Dhonau is a one-woman property flood resilience army with almost a lifetime’s experience of helping people who have been unfortunate enough to have been flooded get back on their feet more easily. Borne of multiple personal flood experiences. But she’s getting exasperated.

Firstly, about sandbags. Because despite countless examples of how they can be next-to-useless at holding flood water back (though they do filter it quite well, she says), and how much more effective property flood resilience measures are, politicians and even flood organisations still push sandbag use. Dhonau tested sandbags in an official testing tank. Four failed in only 59 seconds from turning the water on and 10 failed in two minutes and five seconds.

This, she believes, is undermining the case for people installing – and being supported to install through Flood Re’s ‘build back better’ policy – reusable flood doors, barriers, and flood resilient adaptations to the fabric of buildings.

Secondly, about flood recovery grants. These have been around for years; provided by governments to local authorities to dish out to flooded residents. But their accessibility is interminable, she says and their value falling like a stone because of inflation in recent years.

Quite simply, “razzmatazz” as she calls it, around flood grants from government is increasingly little more than window dressing. The grants were set at £5000 back in 2009, but for a local authority to be eligible to offer them, 50 properties in an area need to have been flooded.

“In my book a flood is a flood” she says. And points out that often the people in most need of property flood resilience measures will be those for whom there are minimal other defence options, such as in very rural areas where business cases for flood defence schemes won’t stack up.

Even if you’re in an area impacted enough to qualify, the process is so lengthy that you could very easily be flooded again subsequently before you could even benefit. This involves getting a survey from a recommended surveyor, three quotes from companies on the Environment Agency’s framework contactor list, choosing the cheapest, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Council, using kitemarked products (of which there are few), getting another survey post-completion, and only then if all those (and more) boxes are ticked can the £5000 be transferred.

This comes including VAT, so the first thing to go is that. Then, the costs of PFR measures. For some, this went up 70 per cent last year due to price rises for aluminium, used extensively in barriers. Currently, these are in the region of:

  • 1 Flood door £2,000 ( and rising)
  • Barriers for a door from £700-£900
  • Self-closing airbrick £80 ( most houses have lots more than 1 airbrick
  • Pumps, which are essential £250
  • Non return valve £50-£150

All this means that once the costs of a survey are taken into account, the VAT taken off and the cost of measures for an average property, what was once a meaningful help for flood-stricken property owners is now of very limited help.

Dhonau says: “PFR is not just about ‘products’. It’s knowing your risk, planning and preparing for a flood, trying to minimise the damage caused and enabling a property to recover quickly. A property has to be treated holistically, not just blocking up holes!”

So, back to the start. We’re facing an emerging reality of extreme weather. More frequent serious flooding. That needs a far more extensive suite of measures to have a hope of keeping pace with.

Landscape scale nature-based solutions, hard flood defences and more. And once you’ve exhausted the potential there, making properties flood resilient. It’s all going to need to work. And these wise sages are worried things just aren’t moving fast enough.

Dave Throup was the Environment Agency’s area environment manager for Hereford and Worcester until his recent retirement.

Mary Dhonau OBE is an advocate for people preparing for a flood, having been flooded multiple times herself.

To find out your flood risk, sign up for a free Environment Agency Flood Warning.

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