Floods hit communities every day worldwide. Rarely do they, or have they, hit the UK with such impact as they have recently. Rarely too, do they have a direct impact on the bigger cities in the UK but this Christmas holiday has seen devastating floods hit the valleys on the Foss, Aire, Calder and through the North West of England. Cities such as York, Manchester and Leeds have all been directly affected with elevated levels of rainfall and rivers in Newcastle and Liverpool too.
Manchester’s new beach – silt left by the high water levels.
Let’s not forget it wasn’t so long ago that both Newcastle and Sheffield were flooded (2007) and Bristol, on the Severn, is regularly affected. By my reckoning 4 or 5 of the ‘Core Cities’ are now seriously worried about the effect these periods of exceptionally heavy and sustained rainfall will have on their citizens’ health and the wider city economy.
In the short term, committed volunteers are helping out. They’ve responded to the crisis to find warm and dry shelter for the most vulnerable whilst the blue light services pump water away from those areas.
Already questions are being raised about who is responsible, what more could be done, why there hasn’t been enough flood protection schemes built to protect the most vulnerable areas. The Chief Executive of Leeds City Council has stated that the cities of the north have been under-invested in whilst significantly bigger sums have been spent in London.
Who is responsible for the floods and what should we do about it?
These are the sort of odd questions that get asked on mainstream media. Firstly, we’re almost certainly seeing the effects of climate change and warming global temperatures intensifying the strength of those storms, like Desmond, which have carried huge volumes of rainfall following the jet streams from the Atlantic and dumping it over the UK.
Secondly, as George Monbiot writes, “Vast amounts of public money, running into billions, are spent every year on policies that make devastating floods inevitable“. Monbiot qualifies his comments by saying “Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour. It’s about not building houses in stupid places on the floodplain, and about using clever new engineering techniques to defend those already there.”
Thirdly, it’s certainly about the limited policies and duties all levels of Government have to deal with this. Whilst there is an expectation that local authorities in both rural areas and cities have resilience plans these often are little more than having all the infrastructure to respond to a devastating flood rather than anything about prevention. In truth, local authorities have very few policy tools they can use to mitigate the risk of flood. Much is responsive to planning applications. But the solution to reducing the risk and impact of flooding isn’t simply about allowing or denying a developer to build in a floodplain.
Under the last Labour government local authorities were tasked with adopting a number of key performance indicators from the ‘National Indicator set’ that monitored their performance and encouraged collaboration between authorities and their services. The least well known and understood of these was NI 188 – which set local authorities the challenge of implementing an adaptation action plan and a process for monitoring and review to ensure progress with each measure. Very few local authorities adopted this and virtually none continue to prepare plans since their resources have been reduced and the requirement to report to NI188 has been washed away too.
The intention of NI188 was to think laterally about climate adaptation and to identify how the impact of the floods could be reduced even if the likelihood of them couldn’t be effected by the local authority on its own. Almost certainly this would require local authorities to work with DEFRA (the weakest of all Government departments in the new Conservative government), the Environment Agency (now experiencing heavy cuts and putting on a very brave face), it’s neighbouring local authorties (all embroiled in the creation of economically-focused city regions and combined authorities without a mandate or appetite for climate adaptation and resilience).
The sort of outcomes NI 188 was intended to encourage are documented in Monbiot’s piece such as the group of visionary farmers at Pontbren. If similar measures have been taken in the Peak District before 2007 it is likely the flood that hit Sheffield would have been less devastating. But the tools to affect upland farming policies at a local level simply aren’t there.
In short, the political landscape hasn’t helped at all. The funding has dried up and the Government must listen to the advice it’s already heard from the Committee on Climate Change and from respected spokespeople like Lord Deben.
Climate change is already having an impact. As the UK prepares for another big storm there needs to be a change in the governance around resilience, climate adaptation and more funding. More importantly, a realisation that we will have more water falling in more intense storms and we simply cannot build our way out of this situation. We’ve sealed-in our urban areas and our drains and sewers cannot and will never cope with the volumes we’ve experienced. A more holistic approach which includes upland management, river valleys, urban areas, key infrastructure and ownership by a genuinely cross-agency approach is the only way forward.