In Practice: rethinking our approach to flooding

Paul Cobbing is the chief executive of the National Flood Forum, a charity which helps, supports and represents people at risk of flooding. Writing for Environment Journal, he argues that action is needed to lower people’s risk to flooding.

Flooding devastates people’s lives.  It can dominate their whole outlook on life for years to come and frequently it does.

As well as the emotional strain, which can be horrific, people get trapped in their homes, unable to sell or move job.  Some will check the drains every time it rains, others will avoid ever going on holiday, or if they do, will return early if the weather changes.

It’s estimated that for those who are affected by flooding 20% will suffer from depression, 28% will suffer from anxiety and 36% will be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.

And yet, 50% of those flooded in the winter of 2015/16 had never been identified by either the public sector or the insurance industry as being at high risk of flooding.

In his recent article, Ruling the Waves: How to fight flooding in the 21st Century, Sir James Bevan sets out three ‘inconvenient truths’:

  1. Flooding will continue to happen. However much we invest, we still can’t protect everyone, everywhere, all the time.
  2. The risks are rising, due to climate change, development and ageing infrastructure
  3. It’s not just the risks that are rising – the costs of mitigating those risks, particularly the more extreme events, are also rising.

Sir James advocates some principles to help us move forward. Firstly, our response to the risk must be from all parts of society; every sector has an important role.

Secondly, we need to change our approach from thinking about managing risk solely in terms of concrete, pumps, property protection and natural flood risk management.

Thirdly, we need to think the unthinkable – how much flooding are we prepared to tolerate?

As part of the flooded community, the National Flood Forum is a charity that supports communities to tackle the things that matter to them; creating hope and reducing the fear of flooding; helping people to work together to reduce flood exposure and its impacts, both physical and emotional.  We do this by helping people and communities take control of their flood risk.

There is a great deal of fabulous work that lots of individuals, communities and organisations do. But how could flood risk be talked about more constructively?

We need ambitious and clearly articulated goals so that it is clear what we are trying to achieve.

For example, Flood Re, the statutory residential property insurance mechanism that provides more affordable insurance for those at flood risk, comes to an end in 2039.  By that date, people everywhere need to be able to get affordable household insurance on the open market.  So we are asking:

  1. Where are those properties that will struggle to get property insurance?
  2. What are the options for nationally and in each place to address this?
  3. What plans have we to make this happen?
  4. How well are we progressing with our plans?

Most of the levers to achieve this lie outside the flood risk management sector: planning and development, provision of infrastructure, insurance and finance, maintenance of assets, economic development, riparian management, transport provision, etc., both nationally and in each administrative area.

All these sectors have a significant role, so the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Strategy review must reflect this and become a Government-wide, cross society strategy.

New governance arrangements are needed in each place to lead cross-sector solutions that don’t mortgage future generations’ life chances on our failure to act today.

There are some interesting attempts to put these in place, but they are few and far between and dependent on wilful individuals.  They should be in place in every local authority area in the country.

The biggest complaint from flood action groups across the country is that they are not listened to, that their local knowledge and skills are ignored. For example, the planning system is a constant cause of frustration and anger and needs a serious review and overhaul if we are to keep people safe and not to put people’s lives at risk.

People will increasingly find themselves at flood risk through no fault of their own. We need to change the attitude that blames people for being at risk of flooding. This needs to be reflected in changed cultures and behaviours in organisations, public and private.  Some new guiding principles are needed for people who work with communities at risk of flooding.

Where people don’t seem interested in their flood risk, it is often because they have been consistently and repeatedly let down by organisations that appear not to care.  People need to be listened to and shown that they have been heard.

They have knowledge about their area that models simply cannot provide.  We need to use it, always. They have skills that can make a real contribution, provided that they are treated as equal partners.

If we want people to become involved in managing their risk the information, support and services available need to be context specific and accessed in ways that meet their needs, rather than the needs of the organisations that serve them.

The flood risk challenges that we face are enormous, but we haven’t yet agreed what our goals should be.  The revised national Flood and Coastal Flood Risk Strategy is an opportunity to put us on the right track.  We need to grasp the opportunity vigorously.


Paul Cobbing, chief executive, National Flood Forum




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