10 February 2014

Floods of ignorance in Whitehall

A decade ago, a high powered panel of experts spent near on two years thinking about flooding in the UK and the possible impacts of climate change. Somehow all their work seems to have escaped the attention of today’s politicians as they run around blaming everyone but themselves for the floods that have brought large parts of the UK to a halt. Politicians can’t stop the rain, but they can implement policies that build on facts rather than knee-jerk reactions.


In a couple of months, there will be an opportunity to “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of one of the first reports from the government’s revived Foresight programme. The Department of Trade and Industry, forerunner of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), issued the Foresight Future Flooding report, also known as Foresight project Flood and Coastal Defence.

The piles of paper that came out of this work are deeply familiar. Late in the day, the many people writing it decided that they needed some help in making the words "politician friendly" and internally consistent in their style. They roped me in for what turned out to be an enlightening week ensconced in the basement of 1 Victoria Street as we worked our way through various drafts.

Ostensibly a look “30 to 100 years ahead”, the Foresight project's various reports have many lessons that oafs like Eric Pickles might care to reflect on in the gaps between their attempts to garner photo opportunities and to pass the buck for the fiasco surrounding the current wave of flooding in the UK. That effort would teach him and his boss that the main factors in determining the effects of flooding on the UK are not what they get up to at the Environment Agency, but the policy decisions made in departments throughout Whitehall and in town halls across the breadth of the land.

The Foresight project looked at a set of future scenarios that depended on, as the press release put it, “factors such as climate change, GDP growth, economic development and government structure”. The press release goes on to warn that “In each scenario, if flood management policies remain unchanged, the risk of flooding increases significantly, and the damage could be very costly. Under the most extreme scenario, annual cost of damages could increase 20-fold from the current level.”

Pickles and his colleagues can find the detailed reports on the on the BIS website and the Project outputs. There they will read that this was no back-of-the-envelope project but was “comprehensive and drew upon a team of nearly 90 leading experts in the UK, working over 18 months.

So much for the background, what would these headless chicken find in the reports? In the Executive Summary they will read “The numbers of properties at high risk of localised flooding could typically increase four-fold under the four future scenarios.” Then they will read “The number of people at high risk from river and coastal flooding could increase from 1.6 million today, to between 2.3 and 3.6 million by the 2080s.”

In other words, floods will affect more people and places. No, then, the best time to be reducing funding for flood research and management.

Research? Don’t we know enough already? Not really. as the experts behind the report say one of their key findings “is the inadequacy of present tools in modelling and predicting intra-urban flooding”.

Let’s just pick a few more bits from the report that seem to have fallen on deaf ears over the past decade:
“new developments and weak planning controls on the types, densities and numbers of new buildings could also increase risk.”
And yet the Environment Agency says that it has no idea if the local councils that approve planning applications, or the central government agencies that ‘referee’ the process, heed its advice. How many of the houses under water today went up contrary to the agency’s advice?
Another bit of the summary says:
“Environmental regulations – could be risk-neutral or could affect flood pathways by constraining maintenance and flood-risk management along rivers, estuaries and coasts, thereby raising risk. This argues for an integrated approach to decisions on flood management and environmental regulation in order to achieve multiple benefits for people and nature.”
Has this happened? Or have we seen yet more disconnected policy making, where the Department for Communities and Local Government, Pickles’s fiefdom, does its thing without bothering to consult the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
How about the bit where the report talks about rural land management and says:
“a recent major study showed that there is substantial evidence that current land-management practices have led to increased surface runoff at the local scale”.
Did the farmers on the Somerset Levels do anything to alleviate, or compound, this risk? Or did they just sit on their hands expecting the Environment Agency to dredge channels deep enough and wide enough to accommodate more rain than has dumped itself on the area in many centuries?

The report gets really interesting when it gets round to discussing aims for future flood management. We have three options, accept increasing risk of flooding, try to maintain the risk at current levels, of set out to reduce the risk of flooding. The middle road might seem to be the most reasonable, but as the report says society “expects increasing standards of safety and risk reduction”. The point here is that there is little discussion between politicians, or in the media, about this choice. They all scream “something must be done”. But what?

That’s just one of many points that you can glean from a close reading of the reports from this project. The pity is that so little seems to have happened in the decade since it appeared.

As Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser at the time of the exercise, said “we must either invest more in sustainable approaches to flood and coastal management or learn to live with increased flooding”. Not much sign of any of that. Spending has gone down and there is little apparent appetite for living with flooding.

The executive summary itself says:
“If an effective way forward is to use the realignment of defences, retreat or even abandonment of some areas, then the sooner long-term plans are in place, the easier it would be for those affected to divest assets with minimum negative impact.”
Here too there is little sign of progress over the past decade.

Perhaps the 10th anniversary of this major study would be a good opportunity to convene a meeting of experts and politicians to revisit the main findings of these reports and to see if they can come up with better responses than running around pointing fingers on all directions.

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