Managing flood risk – what happens next?

Ahead of his speaking role at ICE Flooding on 30 June, Paul Cobbing of the National Flood Forum explores how far flood risk management has progressed in the UK, and what more needs to be done to make communities more resilient

5.2m people in England and Wales are at risk of flooding. How can we make communities more resilient?
5.2m people in England and Wales are at risk of flooding. How can we make communities more resilient?
  • Updated: 13 June, 2016
  • Author: Paul Cobbing, National Flood Forum

ICE's annual flooding conference on 30 June falls during something of a crossroads for our industry, as we try to manage and address the impacts of climate change. On one hand, we have had the Paris COP21 agreement and rapidly rising levels of renewable energy use. On the other, we are seeing more and more exceptional, unprecedented weather events across the world.

Extreme levels of rainfall in the UK last winter led to catastrophic flooding in Cumbria, the north of England and southern Scotland, and just in recent days we have seen severe surface water flooding across the country. Swathes of mainland Europe, the USA and Australia are also suffering. Googling "floods" on any day of the week will highlight somewhere in the world where people are experiencing the trauma of being flooded.

It is also becoming increasingly clear to many communities that being flooded "once in a lifetime" may well mean that they will be due for a soaking again some time very soon. Not surprisingly, they are not keen to see this happen, are increasingly demanding action and want to be listened to. Many are either using their existing knowledge and skills to good effect, or are developing it rapidly.

How far have we come?

We have made significant progress in developing better insurance for households through Flood Re, but have still to do the same for small businesses. We have developed much more sophisticated approaches to managing risk, using a mosaic of interventions from hard engineering to land management, maintenance and incident plans, but still there is a perception that flooding only comes from rivers or that walls and pumps will provide absolute protection. Of course we all know that this is not the case and one of the primary lessons from last winter's floods is that we should be planning how to handle residual risk as part of every scheme.

It has become abundantly clear to many people that our level of ambition in dealing with flood risk, and possibly in responding to flooding too, is simply inadequate, as recognised in the number of enquiries set up following last winter's floods. We don't yet know what these various enquiries will report and announce in the way of new measures, nor are we clear whether this will result in the sort of change that will significantly reduce our flood risk over time and our ability to respond to events.

Also, the result of the referendum on the 23 June could have unforeseen impacts if it results in ministers acquiring new posts. Those who are driving the various enquiries may not be the same ones that end up making the decisions. Will we get the step change that we need? And if so what will it involve?

By the time we get to the ICE Flooding on 30 June, maybe we will be getting some hints of what is to come. At such a critical time, the conference offers a valuable opportunity for UK flood experts to gather to share knowledge, discuss the latest thinking around planning, policy and best practice and hear views from keynote speaker Neil Parish, chair of the Government's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

What would communities really welcome?

First and foremost, flooding is a people thing, so people need to be at the very centre of new policies, not as grateful recipients of handouts from the centre, but participating and driving change. We have moved a long way from it only being a state responsibility, but how far are we prepared to go in welcoming, encouraging and supporting the work of communities who actively strive to reduce their flood risk. To what extent are we prepared to invest in building the social infrastructure to make this happen?

What is our level of ambition? What is achievable, over what timescale and how will it be delivered? Inevitably, there will be tensions and tradeoffs – so what are they and how will we approach them?

Are we finally going to be honest and make it clear that it is not possible to stop all flooding?

How far will we move towards all parts of Government proactively supporting the management of flood risk and what is the role of business, the insurance industry and water companies in helping to deliver this? At a local level, where will accountability lie and how will it be transparent to individuals and communities?

Bringing things down to a practical level, and one specific example, the use of Property Level Protection to reduce flood risk on individual properties has become increasingly fashionable, particularly where traditional schemes are too expensive or not appropriate. Whilst there are any number of products and services, it is still almost impossible for the layperson to be confident that they are better protected. What needs to be done to ensure that this industry matures and develops responsibly?

These and many other examples need to be addressed urgently if we are successfully to rise to the flood risk challenges ahead.

About the Author

Paul Cobbing, speaker at ICE Flooding 2016 on 30 June, is Chief Executive of the National Flood Forum, a national charity that supports and represents flood risk communities. It works by helping people to prepare for flooding and supporting them to recover their lives when they have been flooded, as well as working with government and other organisations to put flood risk communities at the heart of policy making and operational delivery.

ICE Flooding 2016

As an industry, we as civil engineers are uniquely placed to instigate change. ICE Flooding 2016 will bring together asset owners and the supply chain to discuss policy, strategy, best practice and lessons learned from a range of new UK flood resilience projects in the UK. To find out more and register to attend, visit ice-flooding.com.

Find out more about ICE's work on urbanisation and resilience.

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