Fire and Rescue officers use an inflatable raft in Bewdley, Worcestershire. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

Flood defences: the long war on water

Digging in for a sustained effort to protect communities and businesses (this piece features in Prospect's upcoming policy report)
March 16, 2020

Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge hit the UK with a vengeance, bringing flooding misery to many communities across the country. Our flood defences protected 127,000 homes across the UK, but were pushed beyond their limits in places. With flooding likely to become more commonplace due to climate change, we must consider solutions.

In my constituency in Shropshire, the River Severn reach its highest-ever level. Due to the previous round of flood defence spending, communities adjacent to the river upstream in Shrewsbury and Ironbridge were largely protected, along with communities on one side of the river downstream in Bewdley. But others were exposed, such as Bridgnorth, where there are no defences and the river burst its banks.

Temporary defences helped many to weather the storm. They have been up longer than ever before due to the prolonged period of rain, and we saw numerous instances of the defences buckling—like in Ironbridge—and others overtopped on the other side in Bewdley. The pumps removing flood waters had been in action for so long, some ran out of diesel.

Environment Agency staff worked around the clock erecting temporary defences, but if flooding becomes more commonplace with excess rainfall, we will go beyond the individual capacity of these hardworking teams and could see more mobilisation of local authorities, the army, or volunteers to ease the burden.

The March budget included a welcome doubling of funding for flood defences, to £5.2bn over the next six years, and £200m for local communities to build resilience, giving hope to affected areas that flood defence measures may help protect them in future. To make the most of funding, we must target the investment appropriately and not have a “one size fits all” approach. Reviews by the Environment Agency can identify where—and what—defences are best suited to protect homes and businesses, while not pushing the problem to the next community downstream.

Such defences should include permanent measures. This could include upstream water retention schemes in certain catchment areas. The agriculture bill, currently making its way through parliament, includes measures to incentivise farmers to manage land according to the “public good,” under the Environmental Land Measurement Scheme This should include incentives for flood alleviation measures.

The significant rainfall has not only impacted on the volume of water, but the quality of the water in our rivers. We have seen more contamination between surface water and foul water drains, which results in more frequent discharge of sewage into river systems for longer periods of time. My private member’s bill, which I am working on ahead of second reading in July in the House of Commons, aims to help tackle this issue and seeks to introduce statutory pressure to reduce discharge.

Of course, river flooding is not the only risk to which the UK is vulnerable. Coastal flooding and surface water run-off also cause significant problems, with flash floods when the ground is dry, and also when the water table is already saturated, so the ground is unable to absorb rainfall and drainage systems become overwhelmed. We need to reduce the temptation for local authorities to grant planning consent on established flood plains.

I look forward to colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee holding the government to account in its recently announced inquiry into the response to flooding.