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The government’s flood plans don’t hold water—because of this fundamental problem

It's not just about increasing the amount of funding allocated. It's about whether that allocation meets need

By Polly Rippon  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks with a local woman pushing a wheelbarrow during a visit to Stainforth, Doncaster. Photo: PA

Boris Johnson’s recent visit to the flood-hit communities of South Yorkshire highlighted the human cost of last week’s ‘biblical downpour’ as he was confronted by angry residents.

TV images of heartbroken residents wading through their living rooms, camping out in community centres, existing on donated tins of food and roads resembling rivers are becoming all too familiar as the effects of global warming take hold. Forecasters warn that the problem will only get worse in the future.

As the floodwaters begin to subside and the affected residents attempt to rebuild their shattered homes, lives and businesses, is it time for a new approach to deal with flooding?

Funding for flood defences in England was cut in 2010 after David Cameron became prime minister. It was subsequently restored after serious flooding hit many parts of the country during the winter of 2013-4 and has increased in recent years.

In 2009, the Environment Agency unveiled its long-term investment strategy for flood and coastal risk management in England. It estimated it would need a budget of £1,040m a year, plus inflation, by 2035 to maintain existing assets and deliver adequate protection for communities.

Initially, like all government departments and as part of the government’s austerity drive, the Environment Agency had its Flood Defence Grant Aid (FDGiA) budget cut from £670million in 2010-11 to £576m in 2012-13.

But following the winter storms of 2013-14, which saw extensive flooding in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall in particular, the government injected another £200m capital funding—taking the total to £802m for 2014-15.

The allocation for 2019-20 is £815m—an increase, but still short of the Environment Agency’s suggestion. As Ian Moodie, technical manager at the Association of Drainage Authorities, puts it: “We need a step-change in investment annually around flood risk management.”

There’s also the question of whether the millions of pounds of public money being allocated to flood alleviation schemes are being spent in the best way possible. As Moodie adds, “even if we had that money there are challenges around how we invest that money—including the rules set out by DEFRA about how it is spent.”

Although more funding is always welcome, experts say the issue isn’t necessarily spending levels, but whether or not spending is meeting need.

Critics say there’s an imbalance between natural flood defences and hard flood defences and instead of just building higher walls and barriers, a more holistic approach needs to be taken, with more natural flood management in uplands and lowlands and more Sustainable Urban Drainage schemes—where surface water is diverted away from drains into green space ‘holding’ areas.

Funding allocations have tended to be reactive—huge sums of money pledged by the government, following large, high profile flooding events. “The Environment Agency is on the back foot,” John Grant, senior lecturer in sustainable and climate change at Sheffield Hallam University, said.

Going forward, he suggests, we need to be more proactive and think seriously about how different parts of the country are likely to be affected—in particular in coastal areas, given that we live on an island. “We can deal with flooding events as they happen, but we also need a long-term plan,” Grant says. “We need to be making homes more resilient. We currently build the same kinds of homes by rivers, on hills, and we expect them to work – we have to build houses for where we live. It’s obvious.”

Roy Mosley, head of operations at Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, said: “What we haven’t seen yet in coastal areas, and this could happen, is flooding from the rivers as a result of downpours like we saw last week, happening at the same time as a tidal surge caused by rising sea levels due to climate change.”

“That would create the perfect storm and a double whammy, which would see new levels of destruction and we need to be planning for them now.”

He added: “It may get to the point where the flooding becomes so regular in certain areas it becomes untenable to live there and it is decided to effectively bulldoze those areas and make them into floodplains.”

Speaking at the launch of the Environment Agency’s draft strategy this May, chairwoman Emma Howard Boyd unveiled a new plan to address future flooding events, which included relocating communities repeatedly hit by flooding.

She called for £1billion a year to be spent on traditional flood and coastal defences, and detailed a three-pronged strategy: creating ‘climate-resilient places’, ensuring all new development is environmentally-friendly and resilient to flooding, and educating people to understand the risks they face and take responsibility for them.

“The need to adapt may seem obvious but history shows people don’t always manage it,” she said.

“In some places, the scale of the threat may be so significant that recovery will not always be the best long-term solution. In these instances, we will help communities to move out of harm’s way.”

Perhaps, then, it’s time to accept we can’t always prevent flooding, but we can make our homes, businesses and infrastructure more resilient. There needs to be a step-change towards working with, rather than against, natural processes.

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