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UK Floods: Changing Attitudes

Commentary, 2 July 2007
Global Security Issues, Europe
Dramatic pictures of flooding across the UK broadcast over the last few days vividly demonstrate how fragile our people, towns and infrastructure are in the face of unrelenting nature.

The dramatic pictures of flooding across the UK broadcast over the last few days vividly demonstrate how fragile our people, towns and infrastructure are in the face of unrelenting nature. In recent years, most notably demonstrated in Carlisle and Boscastle, flooding has become a near danger acutely affecting isolated pockets of the country. What distinguished the recent experience was its widespread quality, an arc of storms enveloping Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the Midlands resulting in great swathes of the UK descending under water.

The initial estimates place the insurance bill at over £70 million and the total cost, including the losses to local trade and industry, the impact upon the economy, the uninsured losses, and the clean-up operation, at over £1 billion. Of course the human cost of five deaths [as of Friday 29 June] and the emotional effect of displaced families and decimated communities cannot be measured. And the rain is set to continue, compounding the problems of the under-siege flood defences and the over-stretched emergency responders.

The irony of the floods is their coincidence with the publication of the National Audit Office’s (NAO) Report on the country’s flood preparations.[1] The report, published on 15 June 2007 and entitled Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England, is a stock-take of how far the country’s flood organisation and preparation has evolved since the last audit in 2001. Whilst the Environment Agency, which has responsibility for managing the risks from flooding in England and Wales, receives praise for its adoption of risk-management approaches to flooding, improvement in flood defence construction management and increasing the number of flood protected people, there are many areas where it is taken to task.

The agency is criticised for patchy and uneven investment which fails to reflect the risk flooding in each region. Moreover there is disconnection between the money assigned to the building of new flood defences and the maintenance of existing assets when considered from the perspective of identified high, medium and low flood risk areas. This issue is exacerbated by poor knowledge of flood defence life-spans, and the avoidable leeching of money in the development stages of construction. In 2006 – 2007, the agency spent £162 million on new flood defences and £176 million on maintaining and operating existing defences. It also spent £39 million on responding to incidents and communicating with the public on flooding risks. It has increased its responsibilities, taking on many duties previously conducted in local areas, and providing a national framework of advice to a re-structured system of regional flood committees. This enhanced role of the agency, and the increasing risk of flooding in the country, makes the findings of this report of national importance.

The recommendations of the report focus on driving greater efficiencies, optimising the nascent risk-management approach to flood defence, improving staff training and utilising more effectively the national information it captures on flood defence inspections, management and operation. Many of the positives that have emerged from the NAO report have been seen in action over the last few days but there is no time for complacency.  ‘The risks of flooding are likely to rise significantly over the next century as a result of, for example, climate change and the building of new houses’ the report intones, so every effort is needed to ensure the country is properly prepared. A total of 2.1 million properties are in flood risk areas with 469,000 at significant risk, amounting to approximately 900,000 people. The last major coastal flood in 1953 caused the deaths of more than 300 people.[3]

In a country where no-one is ever further than 72 miles from the sea[4] and the occupation of flood plains is set to continue, recognising the flood spectre is essential for all. One interesting observation from the NAO report is that the focussing of flood defence attention on high-density population areas means that rural and isolated communities may not benefit. The report suggests that mobile or temporary defences may provide solutions but that more analysis is required.[5] But perhaps in making this observation, the report is disguising a more profound conclusion. If periodical flooding is to become a new feature of our society’s landscape, the preparation and response should not only come from the direction of government. The onus is on all individuals and communities to help themselves and to help each other. One individual, interviewed during the recent floods while sheltering in a local hall, remarked that the community spirit he had witnessed was positively reminiscent of his war-time experience. Herein lies the essence of the self-help and community approach: the resilient attitude. Whether this is manifested through the stockpiling of sandbags, the taking out of contents insurance or simply a neighbourly discussion of ‘what if’, the acknowledgement of flooding risk and the changing of mind-set to confront the changing of climate, will be an essential component of the country’s flood defence.

Neil Ellis
June 2007

For more information on this strand of research please contact Neile@rusi.org

Notes

[1] National Audit Office, Environment Agency: Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England (The Stationery Office, London, 15 June 2007)

[2] Ibid. P4

[3] Ibid. P9

[4] Richard Girling, 'If you go down to the sea today…' (Times Online, 10 June 2007)

[5] NAO, Building and maintaining flood defences, PP24-25

 

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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