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“Given the predicted increase in the range of future extremes of weather, the Government should give priority to both adaptation and mitigation in its programmes to help society cope with climate change.”

(Pitt Review, 2008)

Watching the coverage of the devastating flooding that has swept across the north of England and Scotland, I’m reminded that the greatest challenge of climate change is likely to be political. This understanding poses many more potential questions, such as: how does society deal with the persistent uncertainties presented by climate change, how can we configure our institutional structures to adequately address the multi-faceted nature of climate risks and given these, how do we ensure there is effective action?

One possible answer is that we need to learn lessons from these sorts of events. In one of the worst hit constituencies, Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans called for a full “post-mortem” of the flooding and the government has since begun a National Flood Resilience Review. I would agree. The importance of reflecting upon failure events was at the heart of my recent doctoral research, which considered the role that urban design and governance might make to enhanced city resilience, based upon on an inductive approach of learning from past maladaptive practice and focussing upon the hazard of flooding.

Once again these events have highlighted the difficulties of estimating potential levels of flood risk, with recently built flood defences overtopped, photographs of submerged development sites, and serious flooding in areas where planned flood alleviation schemes have been cancelled. The UK’s designations of flood risk represent something of a paradox; on the one hand metrics are necessary to identify where flooding is most likely to occur, the potential risks and thus where we should direct action. Alternatively, these quantitative measures are often unreliable or wrong, being largely based upon prior occurrences and thus not addressing how the climate is changing. Iain White’s (2013) paper, “The more we know, the more we don’t know: Reflections on a decade of planning, flood risk management and false precision”, provides a brilliant account of the limitations of these measures, including the growth of properties deemed to be at risk of flooding  as a result of new flood events(see below).

White 2013 table(White, 2013, p.109)

Many other commentators have noted how the convention of using return periods to categorise flood risk is misleading; thus the use of 1 in 100 year flood event to represent a 1% probability, is often assumed to mean that it will only occur every 100 years, whereas in practice such events have the potential to occur much more frequently or even in the same year. In my own research, which looked in greater detail at how flood risk was managed within the planning and development process, I found widespread confusion or misinformation on these designations. The overwhelming view of development stakeholders was that action on flooding was only necessary where the risk of flooding was 1 in 100 years or greater (much of the recent flooding occurred within areas with a much lower designated flood risk) and that more serious flood risk could be usually controlled by raising ground levels to this height. To some extent this binary approach is compounded by national policies and the legalistic basis for planning decisions which are ultimately accountable to judicial scrutiny, or at least the threat of legal action, and thus necessitates some legally enforceable lines on the ground. Within this context, it was reported that a variety of planning, engineering and legal consultants actively market their ability to overcome such proscriptions. Perhaps more critically, I found that flooding was rarely a priority of local decision makers under mounting pressure to allocate sites for housing.

As this suggests, governance is also critical to how we might attempt to prevent future flooding. Responsibility for a typical flood event can involve multiple local authorities (including upper and lower tier authorities), the Environment Agency, private utilities and water companies, internal drainage boards, emergency services, local charities and volunteers, as well as individual affected landowners, businesses and households. Funding is arguably even more convoluted. Commenting on where the responsibility lay for reducing incidents of flooding, a stakeholder I interviewed observed that it would be difficult to conceive of a more complicated and tortuous system of oversight. Given the very different priorities and interests of groups involved, good governance is critical to ensure these relationships are mediated in a constructive way, i.e. one that actually reduces the occurrence and impact of flooding.

I began this article with a quote from the Pitt review and it is telling that many of Lord Pitt’s recommendations related to governance, in an attempt to simplify responsibility and thus accountability for flooding. This springs to mind, when I watch a procession of pompous wader-clad, government ministers talking about the ‘unprecedented’ flooding and the need to learn lessons. Pitt’s painstaking review outlines both the urgent need for action and the many steps required to reduce flooding through mitigation and adaption; lessons that many politicians appear ignorant of (I would strongly suggest that they need to revisit the report).

Whilst Pitts recommendations would be (somewhat) addressed by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, an important absence was legislation for local authorities to introduce SuDS Approval Bodies to maintain natural drainage facilities, which was repeatedly delayed before being cancelled by the Coalition Government in 2015. Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) describe the range of natural features that capture surface water and minimise conventional drainage discharge; as such they have an important role in reducing flooding, particularly from new developments.  My own research corroborated how confusion over who would adopt or maintain these facilities, was a key barrier to more widespread implementation of SuDS, despite being cost neutral at worst.

I should be clear that SuDS isn’t a magic bullet to solve the problem of flooding, even with more extensive retrofitting. Similarly, whilst there is good evidence that land management practices can make a contribution, I would like to see further trials and studies on upland planting before declaring it the answer to tackling the problem. Somewhat inevitably, the solution is almost certainly a more holistic, ‘whole catchment management’, with all sectors that interact with water making an effort to minimising flooding; thus it needs to be considered at a strategic planning and development level, right down to households contributing through green roofs and not paving over their gardens. I also think much more could be done on individual and community flood preparedness; in particular making people much more aware of what to do in the event of a flood and how they can minimise future impacts themselves.

However, the difficulty of this approach is that it requires change/adaption in many areas. The example of SuDS adoption illustrates the difficulty enacting change, even where arrangements are ‘maladaptive’ and otherwise erode resilience (see Coaffee and Clarke, 2015). Similarly, a number of recent flood stories have highlighted how vested interests thwart effective action, and hence the appeal of mitigation and flood defences. In simple terms, mitigation offers a way of protecting the status quo, whilst adaption requires change of some sort. Flood defences cannot protect all assets against all levels of risk, or at least not without being prohibitively costly. An associated and crosscutting problem is that whilst politicians are only too happy to fund emergency response and recovery, there is not enough spent on prevention and preparation, and this also needs to change if we are to avert future disasters.

The need for adaption, and thus change, articulated by my opening quote from Lord Pitt was mirrored within my own research; looking at hundreds of disaster events, too often there was a failure to change or to learn from past events. On the evidence of recent flooding, which has come so soon after the floods of 2013/14’s, the UK Government has failed to take effective action on the issue.

However, major events can be catalytic in initiating transformational change (see New York’s many resilience projects that have followed Hurricane Sandy); we can only hope that the impact of recent events and the recent Paris Agreement on climate change, will spur our politicians to action on flooding and climate change.

A few useful references:

Coaffee, J. and Clarke, J.R.L. (2015) “Viewpoint: On implementing Urban Resilience”, Town Planning Review, 86(2), p.249-255.

Pitt, M. (2008) The Pitt Review: Learning lessons from the 2007 floods. Cabinet Office, London.

White, I. (2013) “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know: Reflections on a decade of planning, flood risk management and false precision.” Planning Theory & Practice, 14(1), p.106-114.

Image Attribution:
York floods 2015” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  alh1