The search for sustainability and resilience

Many counties across the UK have been victim to bad floods over the last few years, and with the response to flooding often too short term, it is important to ask - how can we turn water flood risk into a sustainable solution? Government Business discusses the topic with Lee Harriman of Crocodile Flood Solutions

It seems strange that it was only nine months ago that heavy flooding brought chaos to parts of the country, turning roads into rivers and causing damage to houses and businesses. With the worst affected areas including Carlisle, Keswick, Kendal, Cockermouth, Appleby, Glenridding and St Michael’s, it is estimated that over 5,000 homes were flooded during December and January 2015.

In the wake of Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, the then Environment Secretary Liz Truss set up the Cumbrian Floods Partnership to analyse how defences can be improved in the communities hit by record rainfall. The Partnership is made up of community groups, the Environment Agency and local authorities, and looks to reduce the impact of extreme weather.

Additionally, overall investment put in place due to the Winter flooding fell just shy of £200 million. However, despite the funding provided, the floods of Christmas 2015 remain a memorable and stark reminder of the devastation that floodwaters can have on a community.

Resilient cities
Many people think that being flooded will never happen to them. Unfortunately, this is not the case, making it important to keep raising local awareness of flood risk to ensure that people living in the local community are aware of whether their property is deemed to be within a flood risk zone.

Lee Harriman, of Crocodile Flood Solutions, warns that things have to change: “Town and city leaders firstly need to except that the reported one in two hundred year flooding events are more like one in ten year events and that it will happen again. Once the powers that be acknowledge this then considerations can be made when updating infrastructure towards things such as permeable surfaces for parking, redirecting surface water in a manageable controlled way and even the types of trees that get planted. All these small changes can have a big contribution in reducing how many people that have their lives turned upside down due to flooding.”

Much of the flooding that has damaged cities in the UK is the result of surface water run-off. In 2011, the London Wildlife Trust published ‘London: Garden City?’ which studied the scale and rate of the capital's garden loss. At the time of the report’s publication, London was loosing greenland and garden space at a rate of two and a half Hyde Parks per year. The Trust is doing much to reverse this trend in a bid to limit the damaging effects of flooding.

The Herne Hill High Line project in south London involves the greening of 22 roofs in an area prone to flooding. Green roofs combat the effects of flash flooding and those in Herne Hill, previously dreary, flat commercial rooftops, form a green corridor down a road that marks the course of the river Effra, which runs in the sewers and contributes to local drainage problems.

“New build projects being built on flood plains could incorporate some of the many passive products that are currently available to help reduce the massive costs involved in the clean up after a flood. The major deciding factor in any of this is the cost benefit ratio of implementing such things, but the cold truth, is the situation in the UK isn’t getting any better but much the opposite and things have to change.”

The Kings Road Pedestrianisation project at Newcastle University, run in 2015, saw a vision to create and enhance the campus to become more sustainable and pedestrian-friendly, through the development of a sustainable approach to surface water and flooding problems. Innovative drainage proposals were designed at the university, which include rainwater harvesting and storage; rainwater planters that gradually release water through evapotranspiration; extensive green roofs and facades that reduce water run off; permeable paving allowing water to filter through and be stored in the sub-base; and tree pit attenuation.

A sustainable solution
Much of the immediate funding for flood recovery and future flood prevention focuses on expensive, obtrusive and short term solutions. Harriman admits that ‘concrete barriers are not only an expensive option to protect them but are expensive to maintain year on year’. Investment in wilder landscapes can provide the natural solutions which help prevent flooding in future. The Wildlife Trusts argue that habitats such as ‘upland bogs and moors, woodlands, wetlands and species-rich grasslands’ can act as ‘giant sponges, absorbing and holding water and slowing down water run-off into rivers’.

In 2014, the Paddington region of London showcased a new 70m2 green wall and sunken rain garden designed to reduce urban flooding in the key tourist area, as part of the capital’s ‘green revolution’. The wall’s unique design enables it to capture rainwater in dedicated storage tanks. Water collected by the tanks is channelled slowly through the wall, nourishing plant life and helping to reduce the risk of surface water flooding in the area by storing over 120 gallons of water at any time.

There is a developing argument for working with nature, rather than against it. How we use our land and the space in our cities and towns can prove cost effective and more resilient. Upland blanket bogs, for example, should have the ability to soak up rainwater before releasing it slowly - in doing so reducing the height, effects and ultimately the cost of flooding to a community.

In August this year, Sheffield City Council considered proposals to divert floodwater into parks and woodlands in the event of severe flooding. Flooding in the region in 2007, not only caused devastation to buildings and homes, but also took two lives. An £83 million investment programme to protect the city from flooding has been put forward, and contains suggestions that propose temporarily flooding open spaces to protect homes and businesses, building new flood defences and opening up underground sections of rivers.

Announcing the proposals, Councillor Bryan Lodge, Cabinet Member for the Environment, said: “We don’t just want to protect the city from flooding – through this work, along with your valuable contribution we have ambitions to find solutions that not only transform Sheffield’s waterways but also possibly generate electricity.”

There is a council proposed notion that while new infrastructure should not be dismissed, exploring the options of encouraging a wilder landscape can reap benefits. The Staffordshire Washlands scheme covers 18,700 hectares, and has seen change happen as a result of the Farming Floodplains for the Future project. The project, which ran from 2007-2010, sought to determine whether the farmed landscape could be viably managed in ways that effectively reduce flood risk downstream, while at the same time enhancing the natural environment.

This is something that Crocodile Flood Solutions have honed in on. Harriman explains: “The problem often starts miles up-stream where what was once a natural flood plain, has been altered in such a way that the water no longer finds its way in to these areas and runs further down-stream causing flooding in places that historically don’t flood. If we looked at a river basin as a whole and made changes along its whole course we could manage the water in such a way that it was slowed down enough to prevent a lot of potential flood events. Building wet lands and wooded areas would help slow the water down naturally and as they matured they would become more effective making the maintenance costs sustainable.”

While companies and councils are aware of the need to restore wilder landscapes, there ultimately needs to be a government acknowledged, whole-rounded approach in the way we manage land in the UK.

Infrastructure and collaboration
Harriman says that infrastructure is the key to creating a society that can withstand the perils of climate change, and highlights collaboration as the key element going forward.

He comments: “Public and private sectors need to collaborate going forward in the designing and planning of a flood proof future. Utilities need to be kept on line in a flood situation to prevent the snowball of chaos caused when we lose them in a flood, especially power. Joined up thinking is definitely needed to help reduce the economic impact when these natural disasters occur.”

In January this year, amid the devastating floods that carried over from December 2015, Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, warned that higher defences will not be enough on their own to deal with flooding.

Discussing flood infrastructure on Radio 4’s Today programme, Bevan said that in his eyes the solution was twofold. Firstly, it will mean ‘thinking much more broadly about how we manage river catchments’ so that slowing the flow of water cam be better managed. Secondly, the key to better flood management is about ‘helping people and communities be more resilient when flooding actually happens’, rather than trying to offer just protection for people.

Dusty Gedge, Green Roof Intergalactic President and supporter of the Herne Hill Highline, said: “I have been doing green roofs for a long time and really hope this project (Herne Hill) is a great success – especially in showing how local communities and businesses can get together to deliver good green infrastructure at a local level.”

Collaboration should not only arrive in the form of council’s working together and the government cooperating with local residents to gage ideas and opinions. Looking further afield to successful international projects can teach us how to best integrate flood infrastructure and wilder landscapes in a cost effective and community benefitting way.

Enghaveparken, a large urban park in Copenhagen, has excavating below-grade zones that allow what is used as a football pitch in the dry weather to transform into a pond when heavy rainfall hits. Part of a city-wide plan to create ‘climate-resilient neighbourhoods’ in anticipation of more rainfall, the Danish capital’s use of retention ponds is a success story that Sheffield City Council should take heart from.

Lee Harriman is the owner of one of the fastest growing property level flood mitigation companies in the country. Being one of a few contractors that take out PLP work, Lee is working hard on setting a standard for this up and coming industry.