25 Feb 2014

Extreme rain, storms and tides have combined to overwhelm our flood defences – but defences can only ever be a backstop. Stuart Watson explores how public agencies could work together to minimise the danger of floods.

As the flood waters continued to rise through the beginning of February, so did the importance of flood risk management as a political issue. The growing sense that a national crisis was taking place drew princes, politicians and platoons of soldiers to the inundated Somerset Levels.

The catastrophic floods of 2007, 2012 and 2014 seem likely to be the result of climate change, according to the Met Office, and represent an emerging pattern. Floods are becoming more frequent and severe. Flood defences can protect only a limited number of houses, and for a limited period. For they are just part of the picture: overall water management needs to improve if the severity and duration of flooding is to be reduced.

Meanwhile, debate is raging on the best ways to mitigate the problems, raising many policy issues. Should the rivers have been dredged more frequently, or is it counter-productive? Is the formula for allocating flood defence spending producing the best outcomes? Is building on flood plains worsening the problem?

Many of these topics have already been considered in depth by civil servants and legislators. The Pitt Review that followed the 2007 floods – which inundated 65,000 homes – called for above-inflation increases in spending on flood resilience measures. The Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which was passed in the wash-up at the end of the last Parliament, mandated the creation of a national flood risk strategy. The Water Bill currently being considered by the House of Lords also has provisions relating to flooding, particularly in the area of flood risk insurance. Yet we’ve been experiencing a string of wet winters, leading to more floods – and more debate on these questions.

Hedging on dredging

Dredging (scooping up sediment from river beds to create a clearer channel) has become a central issue in the flooding debate. Some Tories believe that the refusal to dredge, due to environmental concerns – a policy begun under the previous government and continued under the coalition – has made the flooding much worse.

Meanwhile, environmentalists counter that dredging is almost always a mistake because it causes rivers to flow faster to the next pinch point – often in an urban area – where they then flood. Better, they argue, to allow rivers to meander naturally, slowing the water down and reducing its destructive power.

Dr Hannah Cloke, associate professor in hydrology at the University of Reading, explains: “Dredging speeds up the flow of water, so in certain areas where you have dredged a channel it will move the problem downstream and cause flooding in more heavily populated areas. The speeded-up water also has more energy so it can erode the banks and cause damage to structures like bridges and culverts.”

Raindrops keep fallin’

“Dredging prior to the flood would not have stopped the flooding of the Somerset Levels from occurring,” Cloke adds. “People have been blaming the flood on the fact that the rivers were not dredged, but that is not how the landscape functions under flood conditions. What they are proposing is taking the sediment out of the channels in order to make the water flow faster. That won’t make that much difference compared to the amount of water that is there already.”

However, Anne McIntosh, Conservative chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee, says that dredging and maintenance of water courses has an important role to play in flood prevention when combined with natural upstream flood defences: “You need both,” she says. “Labour invented a lot of red tape about dredging. They were totally fixated on biodiversity. The government has now allowed seven pilot schemes, allowing landowners to carry out dredging themselves. You should use local knowledge, let them do what they know is best for that area.”

Andrew Clarke, head of policy at the National Farmers Union, explains his organisation’s support for dredging in the Somerset Levels: “We are not arguing the dredging would have stopped flooding. It will allow you to clear the water more quickly,” he says. “Dredging is an important part of the solution, but it is not the only solution. The thing that has really angered farmers is we have been warning about the lack of funding going into the maintenance of rivers – not just in Somerset, but across the country – for decades. Rural residents feel that their voice is not being heard.”

The Environment Agency (EA) has powers to carry out maintenance work on main rivers and the coast, and prioritises maintenance work according to flood risk. Its maintenance budget for 2010-11 was just over £100m, but is set to decrease to £60.7 million in 2014-15. A July 2013 report by the EFRA committee concluded: “We are deeply concerned at the decision to reduce funding for maintenance of flood defences and watercourses which could leave communities exposed to the threat of flooding.”

Too many skippers

The sheer number of bodies – including Defra and EA – which have a role to play in flood risk management makes it difficult to co-ordinate action to tackle the problem. County and district councils produce their own strategies and have responsibility for managing smaller rivers and streams; highway authorities and water and sewerage companies manage the risks presented by and to their own infrastructure; and internal drainage boards are independent public bodies responsible for water level management in low-lying areas.

Better coordination is needed across government and its agencies, according to Richard Ashley, professor of urban water at the University of Sheffield. “DCLG and Defra need to be nicer to each other. Government needs to stop cutting Defra so that there is no science left. We need a coherent policy for water cycle management in England,” he says, arguing that “Scotland and Wales are better. They have relatively new governments willing to stand up against Westminster. Wales has a unified Natural Resources Wales organisation, and they have had a complete reform of all the institutions – which means they are going ahead with integrated water cycle management.”

Ashley believes Defra’s catchment partnerships approach shows some promise. The partnerships, which seek to coordinate work across areas with interconnected bodies of water, have now been set up across all but one of England’s 87 water catchments.

A catchment area approach requires not only flood defences to protect homes downstream, but projects upstream to slow down the water and reduce the likelihood of flooding. “Yes, let’s spend more on flood defences – but let’s not get over-obsessed with physical defences. Let’s do more on soft flood defences, which cost less and are more practical and more natural,” argues McIntosh. She cites the “Slowing the Flow” project at Pickering in her own North Yorkshire constituency of Thirsk and Malton, where land management techniques such as wetland restoration are being used to soak up excess water and reduce flood risk.

However, there are concerns that the funding system for flood defence projects may be discriminating against small, low-profile natural defence schemes. The EA funds projects on the basis of their value for money, aiming to save between £5-8 in prevented flood damage for every £1 spent. Mary Donau, chair of flooding support charity the Flood Protection Association, says that “because of the way it is funded, getting enough points to get a natural flood risk scheme in a rural environment is very difficult – even though the benefits may be felt further down, in a town or city.”

Opening the floodgates

A policy note released in January by the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent statutory body established under the 2008 Climate Change Act to advise the government, concluded that the high return-on-investment threshold means that worthwhile projects are not being funded. It concluded: “We can expect an extra £3bn in avoidable flood damages in future years because spending this period is half a billion pounds behind the identified need.” Indeed, in an interview with CSW, EA chief executive Paul Leinster suggested only last December that plenty of value-for-money flood defence schemes aren’t eligible for cash: “The work that we’re doing is between 5:1 and 8:1 cost-benefit ratio,” he said. “For public expenditure, that’s really good value for money. I suppose you could ask a question, which is: would anything above 2:1 be good? Is anything above 1.2:1?”

Meanwhile, some critics argue that aspects of public spending are actually making things worse. Writing in the Guardian in January, environmental campaigner George Monbiot argued that subsidies paid under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are encouraging farmers to clear trees and scrub on uplands, speeding water flow and increasing run-off.

“If you want to receive your single farm payment – by the far biggest component of farm subsidies – that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation’,” he wrote. “The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”

The NFU’s Clarke counters that this view is based on a misinterpretation of the policy: “The single payment scheme payments require farmers to keep land in good agricultural condition. One of the conditions is that you protect the trees and woodlands and the semi-natural vegetation in and around that land. If you remove or damage those areas you can have your payment withheld, so it is not in farmers’ interests to clear the land,” he says.

Monbiot is not convinced: “If land is designated as woodland then you have to protect it as woodland; but if woodland starts coming back on land which is designated as agricultural, and you haven’t got a special grant for planting woodland, then that land is taken out of the agricultural envelope because the rules say you have to prevent the encroachment of unwanted vegetation,” he tells CSW. “When I lived in mid-Wales you could see it going on all around. There were pillars of smoke as they were clearing gorse and scrub.”

Building on solid ground

Spatial planning is another policy area which has a significant impact on flood risk. National planning policy prevents development on flood plains without extensive mitigation work, and the EA is a statutory consultee on all planning applications: the government claims its advice is followed on 99% of occasions. However, concerns remain: “We are still getting a percentage of housing approved against EA advice on flood risk. Why the hell is that happening?” demands Dr Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association. “It is happening because the EA has been sent a message not to get in the way of growth.”

The EFRA Committee has also expressed reservations about the barriers to development in the flood plain. “We have to stop building in flood plains,” says McIntosh, suggesting that such developments will always be hard to defend against flooding. “It is flood plain for a reason.”

Policy also mandates the provision of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS), which are designed to let water falling on urban areas drain slowly into the ground rather than running straight into drains or rivers. However, Professor Ashley fears that it is being watered down: “We have a draft national standard on SUDS that uses weasel words to say that it doesn’t have to happen if it is shown to be too expensive. Pickles has decided we are not going to do that because the house builders don’t like it. It’s this deregulation mania,” he says.

Looming over the flooding debate is the spectre of climate change. Could things get a lot worse? “Is this related to climate change, or not? There is a possibility that it is,” says Cloke. “That is quite worrying if we are seeing the effects so early on, because that has not been factored into the way we have been looking to the future. If we have these floods for the next ten years, that will require a massive shift in the way we adapt.”

The TCPA’s Ellis calls for a national plan on climate change adaptation: “We need a transformational change in the way we think about planning and flood risk. That means moving populations away from risk; deciding whether or not we are going to flood-defend agricultural land for food security, and whether we have the right flood defence for infrastructure. We now have the main rail line to one of our regions severed by severe weather,” he says. “If someone was printing T-shirts with ‘I told you so’ written on them, you could hand them out to climate scientists at a time like this. It is an enormous political failure.”

After several such incidents, a pattern is beginning to emerge in the government response to serious floods: an inquiry is held; recommendations are made; some are implemented, and some are not; and the big issues around climate change are not adequately addressed. If that pattern is not broken, then crises like the current one could become annual events.

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