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Flood risk management

Now is the time to be innovative.

The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee has today published a report on the government response to the winter floods. In this guest blog, Dr Angela Connelly, of Manchester University who attended the IfG-Arts and Humanities Research Council “Engaging with Government” course in 2013 suggests a more innovative approach to building flood resilience.

Now that the winter floods of 2014 have receded, many victims will continue to piece their livelihoods back together over the coming weeks and months ahead. Some hard questions are being posed about the extent of flood defence spending, particularly following the budget announcement when a further £140 million was apportioned to it. This reactive pronouncement is unsurprising. Major crises open up policy windows and opportunities. The key challenge is not to make overly hasty pronouncements but to think of considered approaches that are more likely to be beneficial over the longer term. How might we best use this opportunity to think creatively about flood risk management? Perhaps the question should be: How we can best use resources to increase flood resilience, rather than how we can defend against flooding? One glimmer of hope was offered in the announcement that affected households could apply for a Repair and Renewal Grant. This is an attempt to counter the insurance industry’s insistence on holding to the “betterment clause” which means insurers will only pay to return properties to the state they were in before flooding took place rather than improving their ability to cope with future flooding. But if households are to get value out of the Repair and Renewal Grant they need to be able to take advantage of improved flood resilience technologies which UK SMEs are developing. These include door guards, flood resilient cavity wall insulation, mobile barriers. For some properties, these can be a relatively easy and cheap way to improve resilience. Although characterised as “property level protection”, such products can only keep floods at bay to certain depths but the added benefit is that they can slow the rate by which flood waters enter properties. But ‘hard’ technologies often require ‘softer’ measures to ensure that they are made fully operational when floods are imminent. This includes improving warning systems, increasing awareness of flood maps, encouraging sign-up to flood warnings, and supporting the establishment of community flood groups, to help technologies reach their full capabilities. When these are not in place, the instances of product failure are high and the consequences, as we know, are costly to property owners and the insurance industry. Such ‘soft measures’ may not be headline grabbers, but they are just as important as the technological solutions. Retrofitting homes for flood resilience is not merely a case of buying products off the shelf: independent property surveys should be carried out and thought given to future maintenance. Moreover, it should be appreciated that such technologies have their limitations, and so property owners need to be aware of when they need to move their valuables or even evacuate. It might also be the case that it is more effective for individual property owners to pool their resources and invest in community-wide flood resilience schemes. Fundamentally, the issue tackled by the Repair and Renew Grant – making homes more resilient – is only one small part of flood risk management. All of this will take time, and is dependent upon building the capacity of citizens, voluntary organisations, and both the public and private sectors to work in a more flexible way. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work; the demands of the Somerset Levels, for example, will differ from a densely populated urban region such as Greater Manchester. Defra have recognised this, and given funding to thirteen Community Flood Resilience Pathfinders in very diverse areas of England. Yet, in relation to retrofitting properties, there is little guidance on what form resilient or resistant repair should take, or how different communities might successfully implement it. The result seems to be a tension between considered policies and those that are reactively applied with little recourse to the vast amount of research and experience that exists, and which could be used to support the growth of small-to-medium businesses specialising in flood resilience.

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