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Bracing for the floods

A flooded field on the Somerset Levels, UK A flooded field on the Somerset Levels, UK Shutterstock
03 Dec
2014
Twelve months on from the 2013–14 winter storms and flooding, the government selects more than 1,400 flood defence projects to get a share of £2.3billion funding for investment

The government has outlined a six-year investment plan in flood defences around the UK, with goals including ‘improved protection to at least 300,000 homes’ to ‘help avoid more than £30billion in economic damages,’ according to the National Infrastructure Plan 2014.

Specifically,  the money will  be spent on such schemes as ‘replacing seawalls at Fleetwood; building a barrage at Boston; refreshing tidal defences at the Thames Estuary; and undertaking schemes at Oxford, Lowestoft, Yalding and the Humber’. The overall goal is to ‘reduce overall flood risk by five per cent compared to current levels by 2021’.

However, in the words of a statement released by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), ‘the next six years in England will see the most ever invested in managing flood risk. The question is whether spending ‘more than ever’ will be ‘enough’.

‘We need a preventative strategy with intelligent investment decisions, not just reactionary responses,’ says Dr Liz Stephens, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Reading.

She told Geographical everyone in the UK needs to be aware of the dangers which flooding can cause, and not to think that because they’ve not been hit on one occasion, that that means they’ll be fine the next time around. ‘Here in Reading we were very lucky last year, we were hardly affected by the flooding on the Thames at all. It’s all about the flows of different tributaries, and people living here shouldn’t think that next time it couldn’t happen to us just because we’ve got away with it the last few times.’

Regarding whether the UK would be any better prepared to deal with similar weather conditions this winter, she says ‘It takes a very long time to go through all the planning and funding processes required for new flood defence, so I wouldn’t expect any changes [as a result of the recent flooding] to be in place this winter. Not least when they’ve had to wait for floodwaters to subside first’.

propertiesUK properties at risk from flooding. Graph courtesy of UK Government

One question is whether any new investment is actually required, as opposed to improved maintenance for existing flood defences. A July 2014 report by the CCC stated ‘Despite recent improvements in asset management, three-quarters of existing flood defences are not being sufficiently maintained’.

Alastair Chisholm, Head of Policy and Communications at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) told Geographical ‘The balance between capital investment and annual maintenance has swung towards capital investment. Now, some of that maintenance may in fact be redundant, but if you look at the overall cost-benefit analysis, it's not prudent.

‘People need to be more aware of the level of flood risk. The government in this country has no statutory duty to protect everyone from harm, like they do in the Netherlands. But they pay for it. We are in a different situation to them, we can afford to take more of a risk-based approach, but we need to decide what kind of flood defence system we want to have, because ultimately, it’s taxpayers who have to pay for it.’

In response to the 1,400 flood defence projects to get funding in the government’s latest announcement, he says ‘Those areas may now become better at protecting themselves from flooding. But flooding manifests itself in different shapes and forms, and different locations can become floodprone.’

Chisholm suggests that by the 2030s, we will need double our current spending just to stay where we are although he expects that people’s expectations are for our infrastructure to be even better than that. ‘It's not just climate change either,’ he says. ‘Because of projected population growth in this country, we are still building on floodplains.’

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