Management of flooding in England is notoriously complicated, mainly because water doesn’t respect ownership of land or the responsibilities of those owners. Flooding policy is also nested within a fragmented and underfunded environmental policy landscape due to ageing UK legislation overlain by EU legislation. One of the stronger arguments for Brexit was that with freedom to act at the right scale, environmental (and therefore flooding) policy could become more coherent, joined up and focused on the particular needs of the UK.
This week saw the launch of a new flooding policy statement from Defra and an associated Flood and Coastal Erosion Management (FCERM) strategy for England from the Environment Agency. Both documents are hard-wired into the new Environment Bill 2020 and the Agriculture Bill 2020, which in turn took their cue from the 25 Year Environment Plan published when Michael Gove was Secretary of State. This suite of policies all sit within the global challenge of climate change.
The LGIU was heavily involved in the development of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. It was a serious piece of legislation that put local authorities into the heart of decision making with responsibility for surface water flooding. The result of a full public inquiry, it was comprehensive and sensible – but looking back, it’s clear to see that its main function was to plug a gap in responsibility exposed by the 2007 floods. Since 2007 the LGIU has run the Local Government Flood Forum and will be convening meetings in 2020 to discuss the new FCERM strategy.
There are few policy gaps left to fill. For some time the main challenge has been to join up policy and find a way of sustainably resourcing resilience. This is where the FCERM strategy and the flooding policy statement come in.
The new FCERM strategy has three strands:
- Climate resilient places: working with partners to bolster resilience to flooding and coastal change across the nation, both now and in the face of climate change
- Today’s growth and infrastructure resilient in tomorrow’s climate: making the right investment and planning decisions to secure sustainable growth and environmental improvements, as well as resilient infrastructure.
- A nation ready to respond and adapt to flooding and coastal change: ensuring local people understand their risk to flooding and coastal change, and know their responsibilities and how to take action.
Without going through the strategy in detail, its ambition is undeniable and it looks like the resources are available. It is also peppered with good ideas such as ‘build back better’, a strengthening of the planning system (though building on floodplains will continue) and a recognition of flooding’s effect on mental health.
Inevitably with policy statements and strategies, some good things won’t happen, but for the first time there are strong connections between farming and natural flood management: flooding, climate change and biodiversity; and the water industry and flooded communities. There is a recognition that every place is different and that adaptive pathways present a sensible route to local resilience. These innovations have an internal logic that would have driven their adoption whether or not Brexit had happened, but I do wonder if such a supportive legislative regime around flooding could have evolved as quickly.