Finally the problem of flooding has reached the top of the agenda, but where will the solutions come from? LGIU’s Chief Operating Officer, Dr Andy Johnston reports from the recent National Flood Forum Conference.
The need to act on flooding and climate change has grown exponentially over recent months and shows every sign of gathering further momentum.
Against a backdrop of continuous heavy rain since September 2019, three named storms in rapid succession, the wettest February ever and the political breakthrough of Climate Emergency, the National Flood Forum met in York. The conference provided an opportunity to reflect on the past year and look forward to a budget that could signal a doubling of expenditure and a new ambitious long term flooding strategy.
The NFF conference is a unique opportunity for the flood family to get together, with community groups front and centre. There was a spirit of collaboration across local authority staff, councillors, Environment Agency teams and community groups that has not always been present in the past. No doubt aided by recent and ongoing cooperation to tackle flooding but also fostered by a culture change in the sector that recognises the need to share knowledge, resources and respect everyone’s contribution.
That culture change can be summed up by the use of two words: unprecedented and resilience. Those of us engaged in flood policy since 2007 have grown weary of the lazy use of the word unprecedented by the media. This time the narrative has shifted, Hebden Bridge suffering three ‘unprecedented’ floods in eight years took care of that. There is a wider recognition that comforting references to 1 in 200 year floods are outdated. If the problem and frequency of flooding is now taken seriously then so too must the solution. I sat on a Cabinet Office working group that identified 145 different definitions of resilience. If it’s to be the unifying principle around which our reaction to climate change organises then a shared understanding has to be established. The EA has now done this and though not all are satisfied, it’s good enough and it encompasses different types of resilience and different paths to achievement.
Having a strategy and resources is great but not the full package. At the conference disagreements tended to revolve around governance. There are outstanding issues around different responsibilities for different types of flooding, opaque decision making processes, silos in government, and a lack of capacity in local government. The governance problems all seem to revolve around a basic point that flooding and any type of climate change impact are experienced at the hyper local level, right down to individual households. Most community groups are affected by surface water flooding, a local government responsibility because local authorities are able to join up flooding to housing, planning, roads, disaster recovery and care – in a place. However, recent years have seen local government become distant and fragmented as budget cuts and mergers spread limited financial and human resources ever thinner.
There has not been a better time to successfully advocate for more money and responsibility to be channeled into flood resilience. The worry is that this is not a good time to have to rely upon local government to make its full contribution.