• Mike Shipley

Floods, the new normal


Increased Flooding Predicted by Climate Science

In 2007, violent summer storms caused widespread flooding in England affecting 55,000 properties, claiming 13 lives. It was described as the largest ever peacetime emergency Costing more than £3 billion. Following the floods Sir Michael Pitt was asked to compile a report and make recommendations to the Government.

In presenting his report he said: ‘the risk of flooding continues to escalate, making the events that shattered so many communities last year an ever-increasing threat” [1]

Since 1995, governments of the world have been warned annually of the growing threat and impacts of Climate Change. This was the year of the first UN Climate Conference [COP 1 Berlin]. While any given flooding event cannot yet be attributed to Climate Change, the accumulated evidence is clear, a warmer world leads to stronger and more frequent storms and heavier rain. To repeat Pitt’s words, ‘the risk of flooding continues to escalate’, in a warming world.

But many Governments, including the UK, have failed to accept, or else urgently act, on the scientific advice. Instead they protected economic interests and oil industry profits, failing their first duty which is to keep people safe and secure. [2] As a direct consequence, it is the people who are paying the price through flooded homes and businesses.

Disastrous floods are no longer ‘once in a lifetime’ events

Despite Pitt’s 92 recommendations for action, flooding has continued to plague communities across the UK:

  • 2009 - Cockermouth in Cumbria, devastated by flash floods; record flooding hit Keswick.

  • 2013-14 - massive flooding in the Somerset levels, along the Severn, Thames Valleys and into Kent. The mainline railway through Devon washed away at Dawlish.

  • 2015 - twin storms Desmond & Eva caused severe disruptions in NW England, Western Scotland, Wales & N. Ireland; Eva caused severe flooding on Christmas day in Central Lancashire & Yorkshire.

  • 2016 - a succession of storms caused flooding across the North, Midlands and London.

  • 2017 - torrential rain caused widespread flooding & power blackouts across Lancashire, Greater Manchester & North Wales.

  • 2018 - storms hit Wales, the worst in 30 years.

  • 2019 - South Yorkshire, hit for the 6th time in 20 years, flooding across the Midlands and the Severn Valley. Whaley Bridge was nearly lost when a poorly maintained dam was overtopped after a cloudburst.

  • 2020 to date - widespread flooding from Yorkshire, through the Severn valley to South Wales.

Are we in uncharted territory?

Government officials lamely claim that ‘we are in uncharted territory’. This is not true. The territory has been mapped over the last 25 years. Warnings and reports have been produced and shelved. Lessons from the new normal of annual extensive flooding, causing misery for thousands of people, are willfully ignored.

Conservative Party policy has caused a flooding ‘Perfect Storm’. They have slashed the Environment Agency budget by more than a half since 2010 and since 2015 they have cut the real budget for flood defence by 15%.[3] They have scrapped detailed planning regulations as part of Cameron’s ‘cut the green crap’ drive and with Osbourne’s ‘presumption to develop’, have allowed increased levels of flood plain development. [4] More than 11.000 houses are to be built on known flood areas, contrary to Pitts 2008 recommendations [5] Environment Agency figures show that 1in 6 homes are vulnerable to flooding in England. [6]

This ‘perfect storm’ has been charted by Conservative ministers and their advisors. If any of them think that we are in ‘uncharted’ territory, it is because they chose to look the other way.

We need Comprehensive Flood Management not Crisis Management

No single course of action will minimise the risk of flooding. The Government's answer, to throw money and concrete at the problem, will not solve it. Too often it simply moves the problem downstream. Rather than flash schemes and ministerial photo-opportunities, the Government needs to implement Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations of 2008. We need a comprehensive long-term national flood management plan, spearheaded by an enhanced Environmental Agency that integrates central and local government action with emergency services and local communities.

An immediate priority is to restore the cuts made by the Tories to the Environment Agency budget to enable the agency to draw up a new flood map of the UK to identify the areas now at risk from flooding. Also, to equip the Agency to rapidly respond to flood alerts and other environmental emergencies. [7]

Good flood management starts with upland management to slow down runoff. This requires a sustainable Drainage Management Plan as pioneered by Stroud District and Gloucester County Councils. [8] It requires more tree planting in the catchments areas to slow down runoff to allow water to soak into the ground. In select areas it will involve the rewilding of both headland and flood plain to increase the water storage capacity of non-developed areas.

Stop floodplain development

The Government must now revise its National Planning Framework to presume against floodplain development, an action called for by the head of the Environmental Agency, Sir James Bevan [9]. Where development is allowed, it must be resilient to flooding. In addition, the Government needs to restore funding to local authorities to enable them to respond to climate emergencies including flood relief.

Where Government does allow development in known risk areas, it, along with the developers, must accept responsibility for loss and damage caused by that risk. This includes providing insurance cover to properties that are increasingly uninsurable.

Decarbonise the economy

The Green Party is consistently demanding that Government at all levels take coordinated, long term actions to tackle the Climate Emergency. If we continue with the business as usual plan that this government is following, then we face a global rise of 3-4C by 2100. That would be ‘end game’ for many countries and communities. We have had nearly two decades of annual flood crises and still Government is dithering, acting piecemeal, crisis by crisis. With COP 26 in Glasgow, now is the time for the Government to face up to reality.

Notes

  1. gov.uk press release 25 June 2008.

  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/home-office/about

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/29/agency-protecting-english-environment-reaches-crisis-point#maincontent

  2. https://theconversation.com/the-inconvenient-truth-houses-built-on-floodplains-could-flood-22605

  3. https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Pitt_Review_Lessons_learned_from_the_2007_floods

  4. https://www.insurancechoice.co.uk/blog/2019/09/how-many-homes-are-at-risk-of-flooding-in-the-uk

  5. Pitt: A wider brief for the Environment Agency, taking a national overview of all flood risk. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100806203134/http://archive.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/pittreview/thepittreview.html

  6. https://agc.greenparty.org.uk/news/2016/01/22/green-councillor-shows-sustainable-way-to-prevent-flooding/

  7. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51620992

#floods #Climatechange

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