Adapting to Flood Risk in the Twenty-First Century

The frequency, severity and duration of flood events is increasing. With five million properties in the UK and 58 per cent of agricultural land at risk, do we need to look more radically at how we adapt for the future?

The recent Environment Agency (EA) report, Managing flood and coastal erosion risks in England: 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2012, highlights both the continued risk to the UK from flooding and the difficulty in keeping the issue high up the political funding agenda. Four of the five wettest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century and the Government's UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA)  suggests this trend is likely to continue. The duration of flooding, as well as its severity and frequency, is set to increase in the coming years.

The EA report, which owes its existence to The Pitt Review - an independent report to Government on the 2007 summer floods - is the first of the annual reports the EA now has a duty to deliver under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. By providing flooding statistics across the financial year and an update of what has been achieved, it shows progress in delivering the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy (FRCEM) and will help inform future Government policy decisions. It covers:

  • progress in managing flood and coastal erosion risks,
  • information on new policies and legislation,
  • environmental benefits achieved from new flood risk and coastal erosion risk management schemes,
  • innovations in flood forecasting and warning schemes and other partnership working.

Despite recent action to address flooding more still needs to be done. The period covered - April 2011 to March 2012 - is one of the more benign flood years in recent memory, with 'only' 517 properties flooding. However, 2012 eventually turned into the wettest year since  records began; the majority of rain fell after April, meaning the subsequent EA report may prove to be a much more interesting read.

Money and investment

One major challenge is the snail's pace at which policy recommendations relating to flooding are implemented. This first statutory annual report comes nearly six years after the 2007 summer floods and is already, at publication, a year behind the information it is presenting. This is in spite of the known damage that flooding does to the economy every year and the high impact of early intervention: the Environment Agency calculates that for every £1 spent on flood defences, £8 of future damage is saved, figures that have already forced the Government into a partial U-turn on the spending cuts made when it came into office, when the £665 million allocated to flood defence spending in 2010-11 was cut to £540 million per year for all subsequent years until 2014-15.

Money is best spent upfront on limiting the damage and needs to be ring-fenced for planning as well as capital schemes. The report is optimistic that over the subsequent 12 month period, the majority of the Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs) set up under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 will consult on their local strategies; a mere seven of the 152 had consulted or were consulting as of March 2012. At grass roots level, the outlook is more pessimistic.


At a Public Policy Exchange Event in March 2013 several delegates indicated that resources - in terms of direct funding and staff time available to them - are scarce and that many are struggling to deliver. Exercise Watermark - the cross-government national flooding exercise recommended by The Pitt Review, which took place just before the period covered by the EA report, also suffered from the lack of available funding. It was scaled down considerably from early intentions and though many useful lessons came out of it, many more may have emerged from more financial and political support.

The economic climate is still extremely strained and yet spending needs to be increased significantly if we are even to maintain flood risk management at current levels, let alone increase it. Professor David Balmforth, building on previous work by the UK Water Industry (UKWIR), estimates that the predicted 40 per cent increase in overall water flow over the next few years, will have the cumulative effect of increasing the volume of flood water by 100 per cent, the number of properties likely to be flooded by 130 per cent, the cost of flood damage by 200 per cent, and the cost of providing solutions to guard against this (such as the development of the Jubilee River in London by an estimated minimum 400 per cent of current investment). If such increased investment is simply not feasible a more radical approach is to think more proactively about how excess water can be lived with, via methods such as those set out in Facing Up to Rising Sea Levels: Retreat? Defend? Attack?

Dealing with flood waters

In some particularly flood-prone regions, such as Cornwall, emergency planning departments have already made the fundamental shift from thinking about flood defence to flood mitigation. The EA report includes a number of examples and case studies of how this is being enabled, proudly acknowledging that 2011/12, was the 'sixth year in succession in which over 96 per cent of planning outcomes (where the outcomes are known) were decided in line with Environment Agency Flood Risk advice; in 2011/12 alone it was more than 99 per cent'. Subsequent reports should not, however, shy away from naming and shaming how many of the developments falling into that remaining one per cent are subsequently affected by flooding. Having the honesty to admit where things have not gone well, as well as where they have, is the best way to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.

Flooding does not, after all, cause only economic harm. More difficult to measure, but receiving increasing attention, is the damage to human health. The Health Protection Agency, which is focusing increasingly on the health impacts of climate change, calculates that in 2012, ten deaths can be directly attributable to flooding and believes that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) may be a significant secondary 'silent killer', brought on by factors such as the loss of one's home, employment or business and loss of access to education.

Building on success

There have been genuine successes of course, such as the Natural Hazards Partnership, which includes a number of Government departments and agencies coordinated by the Cabinet Office. The planning and testing conducted under its banner in preparation for the Olympics has encouraged many agencies and experts to work together on a range of natural hazards from flooding to heatwaves, to the impact of volcanic ash.

The partnership has, for example, provided severe winter weather warnings to the health sector to enable early implementation of mitigation strategies, particularly to protect vulnerable individuals and communities. The information the Partnership can provide to a community in advance of expected severe rainfall is estimated to provide between twenty-four and thirty-six hours additional action time on the ground. Working together to achieve better collective effect will become increasingly important as the resources available to each individual department dwindle.

Flooding remains one of the highest risks to the UK, both in terms of the economic cost and the impact on communities. Well considered and well prioritised infrastructure investment can bring huge rewards but this has to be done at the national as well as local level. How easy this will be under the current Localism agenda remains to be seen, but the next report, on a year that was considerably less forgiving to properties at risk, is likely to reiterate that given the financial cost of flooding to the UK we cannot afford to cut investment in flood defences.

 Jennifer Cole is Senior Research Fellow, Resilience and Emergency Management at RUSI and RUSI's representative to the Inter Institutional Flood Group.


Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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