Flood risk management – do we need changes?

FloodsEarlier today the (D)Efra Committee published its review of arrangements for flood risk management. I posted my initial response on Facebook and I stand by what I said there – essentially that the call for a new strategic authority and ‘floods czar’ is misguided. This piece explores more of the issues.

There is a real risk that the report is seen as either a knee-jerk response and/or politicking, yet there is some good (if not novel) stuff in there as well as at least one major flaw.

First the good. Well, that is the vast majority of the recommendations. It’s always good to have p(P)olitical backing, but let’s not get the idea that any of these recommendations are novel. Numbers 1-7, which are the obviously ‘operational’ ones are already developing here in Yorkshire and were long before this report was ever thought of.

The idea of a whole-catchment approach mirrors that of the Catchment Based Approach that Defra set up and funded for ‘environmental’ concerns and bringing those two approaches to catchment management closer together is one of my key aims.

Storing water and land management is a no-brainer, although I remain to be convinced that we should compensate farmers (especially) when the flood plain that they own gets flooded. After all every time it floods they get free fertiliser and soil and owning a flood plain surely means that you understand (Or should do) the issues. So many of our flood plains have been commandeered for other uses and I can get quite frustrated when people complain that their local flood plain floods.

Sustainable drainage systems – it’s taken at least 30 years since the water industry started funding research for SUDS to become mainstream. It’s about time that developers were compelled to install best practice SUDS whenever development of any size is undertaken. Every little bit helps. I believe that much greater emphasis now needs to be placed on retro-fitting SUDS. We have millions of hectares of hard standing in our cities and our roads and by adopting the ‘every little bit counts’ philosophy we can slowly but surely make inroads.

Maintenance and dredging – a sensible recommendation but I feel that insufficient emphasis was put on the very limited usefulness of dredging, especially after the then Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, effectively gave farmers and IDBs carte blanche to dredge in her knee-jerk reaction to the 2015 flooding.

Flood warnings and public understanding of risk – Whilst I have put these two recommendations together, the first is primarily technical and the second to do with communications. Nonetheless they are sides of a coin, without the former we cannot effectively deliver the latter. The key issue is one of active engagement at all times. The history of the EA, which I acknowledge is changing albeit very patchily, is one of ‘Decide, Announce, Defend’ and this has left a legacy of mistrust. They have also tended, IMHO, to consult rather than engage and only to do so transactionally and late, rather than recognising that collaboration demands ‘upstream’ (sorry, but I could not resist!) effort to build trust and understanding in order to be able to reap that when needed.

The rest of the recommendations are clearly relevant at a national strategic level and all except the last make absolute sense and should be acted upon as soon as possible. However, I take exception to the suggestion that a new governance model be created.

There are certainly multiple agencies involved in FRCM and whilst these all need to be involved, I fail to see how creating a single national FCRM body helps co-ordinate them. We already have such a body – the Environment Agency – and my personal and local intelligence suggest that they are doing an increasingly good job in trying circumstances (for which read ‘shortage of funds’). I might argue that a desire to address a democratic deficit has led to a proliferation of agencies with responsibilities, to the detriment of strategic planning. Only a cynic (moi?) would suggest that this also pushed spending and spending decisions out of the hand of national agencies and so allowing government to have an arms-length relationship with these strategic challenges.

Finally, separating the ‘environment’ and ‘flooding’ arms of the EA risks fragmentation of addressing ‘watery’ issues. There is already a, fortunately closing, gap between the two arms of the EA and separating the functions can only make it even more difficult to identify and deliver the collaborative multiple benefits that are undoubtedly available when we work together.

A useful document that doesn’t add much in practice!

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