The complexity of flood management

Jim Allen | E&M West

Working with water is a challenge wherever you are.  Balancing human need for supply on the one hand, and safety and security on the other are common concerns, although the severity of the challenge and the particular focus will vary.

In the UK recent experiences with extreme weather events in all corners of the country have focussed attention on flood risk.  Existing provision for drainage and flood defence was tested and found wanting, having suffered years of limited investment and frankly neglect. 

Flood management is complex, with responsibilties split between local and national bodies.  The Environment Agency is theoretically in overall control, dealing with main rivers and coastal defence, but sharing responsibility for policy and lesser watercourses with local authorities who must produce strategic flood risk assessments for their own areas.  Independent organisations called Internal Drainage Boards have entirely separate responsibilities for legacy networks of drainage ditches and pumping stations.  Where coordination is required, and flooding does not respect organisation boundaries, the EA will step in, for example in my own area developing an overall approach to manage coastal development in Severn Estuary.

So, when we try to develop anything in an area with flood risk we have to submit a site specific flood risk assessment, the content of which are mandated by national legislation, but which also respect and respond to the standing advice contained in any applicable strategic studies, and has to consider and reflect the concerns of multiple tiers of standing organisations.  The technical aspects of development control sit beside planning considerations which relate to vulnerablity of use, and the contribution that any particular development can bring to the environmental sustainability of the community. 

This results in a plethora of documentation interpretation and argument which coalesces around local planning committees.  The people who make the decisions are essentially elected politicians from the local area.  Clearly their decisions are not always entirely objective, but by and large they respect the opinions of the “big beast” of this particular jungle, the Environment Agency.

Which is not a lot of help when their standing position, having yet to conclude on a coherent policy for the Severn Estuary, is to object in principle to every application for new development.  Even redevelopment proposals, where flood risk can be mitigated, and only tolerated when subject to a a plethora of conditions which in many cases make development uneconomic.  The result is near paralysis in development terms. 

The EA may be due a measure of sympathy, because they look over their shoulder at a raft of planning approvals granted in the 1950’s and 60’s to industrial conglomerates which if implemented would concrete over a very large part of Severnside with disastrous environmental consequences.  Apparently the permissions cannot be challenged.  The EA to its credit also understands the flood issues, and has schemes up its sleeve to “hold the line” in terms of flood defence.  The rub is government will not commit to funding, and any flood defence measures will result in loss of habitat which we are bound to protect under European legislation.

If the only issue were a small brake on the economic engine of the UK I can understand why you might shrug your shoulders with a “so what!”  Unfortunately there is more to it than that, because resolution of this issue could enable the UK to make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions.  One of the greatest potential resources the UK possesses is a huge tidal range, in the Severn Estuary that means the possibility of a barrage that could contribute green energy to the tune of 6% of the current UK energy demand.  That may not seem much but it is equivalent to 3 nuclear power stations.  The barrage would also, fortuitously and with increasing relevance, provide a very effective flood defence.

This should be a no brainer, if only from a purely selfish point of view as a failure to act now, given the painfully long development process in projects of this complexity, may well result in much of our local areas being subject to tidal flooding on an annual basis.  Billions of pounds worth of infrastructure and industrial capacity, not to mentions thousands of homes will be put at risk.

This is not to underestimate the very considerable technical challenges.  But then, thats what the UK is supposed to be good at. 

What really irks is the lack of what I would call “big picture” thinking.  We are struggling to meet our climate change obligations, and under the current economic conditions much of the good work done so far is seemingly at risk.  Our Prime Minister, who if I remember correctly, promised his administration would be the greenest on record, is now reported as being keen to get rid of the “green crap” to save his electoral hide.  A whole raft of “green” legislation, particular in the water management field, is being delayed if not entirely kicked into the long grass.  The fear: too much cost, too much of a brake on economic development:  the solution, deregulation at all costs.

Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge, because for all the political posturing there is a disturbing lack of engagement when it comes to committing funding.  I can only conclude there is still underlying scepticism at the top when it comes to climate predictions.  I can only hope that the recent drowning of the Somerset levels, and perhaps of more relevance to Westminster, the flooding of the prosperous Thames valley, may change their minds.  So far the only reaction has been to jettison what little policy the government has on energy and flood management in favour of knee jerk short term fixes. 

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