Capacity building for better flood risk management

Flood and Water Management ActThe 2010 Flood and Water Management Act gives Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs) new responsibilities for local flood risk management strategies, sustainable drainage systems (SUDS) and Surface Water Management Plans (SWMPs). LLFAs are county and unitary local authorities who may elect to delegate some responsibilities to district authorities in two tier local government areas.

In response to the new roles and responsibilities Defra and LGA have looked at the skills required for local authorities (LAs) to deliver improved local flood risk management. Surveys and workshops have been undertaken to assess what skills local authorities have and will need to develop in the future. Defra is currently developing a capacity building strategy to support local authorities and an important element within the strategy is the development of a portal which can help to provide an efficient and cost-effective way of providing and sharing information and knowledge on local flood risk management.

New responsibilities
In addition, the 2009 Flood Risk Regulations transpose the EU Floods Directive with the intention to reduce the likelihood and consequences of flooding. They place requirements on LLFAs to assess local flood risk, identify areas of significant risk, prepare hazard maps, and produce management plans.

LLFAs in particular, and local government in general, are therefore due to undertake important new flood risk management responsibilities. While many local authorities have some familiarity in flood management and drainage (through existing flood risk management and highways) the new responsibilities will require a step change in local government’s flood risk management understanding and capacity.

Other organisations (e.g. water companies and the Environment Agency) will need to adapt too so that they can work in new ways with local authorities to collectively address complex flooding problems.

A number of reviews have previously identified the lack of skilled practitioners as a limiting factor to the development of innovation and sustainable development. The Institution of Civil Engineers in 2005 identified the lack of candidates with engineering and scientific qualifications as a long term problem. Many responses to the consultation on the draft Flood and Water Management Bill (now the Flood and Water Management Act) identified the lack of skills and resources to tackle new roles and responsibilities as being a significant challenge. This situation is likely to be more acute within local government, as local authorities have a lead role in local flood risk management but in previous years have lost key expertise. Some authorities do not have the resources in place or the skills to understand the extent of the challenge to effectively deliver a way forward. In some exceptional cases where they have not experienced flooding, they are not even aware of the risks.

Addressing these deficiencies will require an approach to resourcing and upskilling, more frequently called capacity building. Capacity building is a highly dynamic process with programmes flexible enough to provide adaptive capacity and tackle challenges at a number of different levels. This is often a fundamental part of the transitioning process to a more sustainable approach to manage resources.

Approaches to capacity building
Capacity building is more than training to improve competencies. It includes the process of enabling individuals and organisations to understand challenges, access information and develop the skills to help them perform more effectively. It also includes approaches to improve the interaction between individuals and organisations, the development and support of management frameworks. This should assist with the management of relationships between different organisations and sectors (public, private and the community), including the development of champions to deliver progress.

Work undertaken in Melbourne, Australia to identify the potential catalysts for a more sustainable approach suggested that the transition process requires a range of interconnected activities and initiatives, with some planned and others opportunistic and reactive, to respond to the opportunities and challenges encountered. Champions or leaders who have a vision for change and can communicate this across the variety of institutions, organisations, disciplines and stakeholders involved in managing the water cycle is fundamental for progression.

Delivering this vision of a more sustainable approach to drainage is dependent on developing an approach where our professionals respond to the challenges by improving their communication, interaction and relationships. These behaviour changes often need to be supported by access to resources, whether it is money, guidance, skills or a combination of all three.

Leadership development
It stands to reason that complex challenges are likely to require more complex ways of providing direction, cohesion and commitment. The culture of an organisation in terms of the way it communicates, thinks and acts together will influence the response to a challenge.

Leadership development requires a more adaptive and subtle approach to enable the leadership process to become more collective, moving the focus away from the individual to a group with a shared awareness and ownership of the problem. It can help people to understand how to relate to others, coordinate efforts, build commitments and develop extended social networks.

At its simplest level, action learning is learning by doing – working on “real world” challenges in a collective and supportive way. It is widely appreciated that the traditional approaches of learning through lecture-based classrooms have limited effectiveness. Action learning processes can be described as a continuous process of learning and reflection, supported by colleagues with an emphasis on getting things done.

There are examples of Learning and Action Alliances being developed specifically to build capacity for flood risk management in the UK. This active learning helps develop the capacity of different stakeholder groups to accept a different view on risk, interactions and potential solutions. This requires the traditional comfort zones of the different organisations and disciplines to be challenged in a supportive but delivery focused learning environment.

In Yorkshire, UK, a Learning Action Alliance (LAA) has been developed through three EU Interreg projects to tackle new challenges relating to flood risk management with a strong focus on the roles and responsibilities of the local authorities.     

The greatest challenge is to facilitate the required change (transition) in culture and practice particularly amongst the key decision and policy makers to find a new adaptable approach to managing flood risk.

Networking is viewed by some as an approach to breaking down functional barriers that occur between organisations and disciplines (Day 2001). The main aim is to move leaders on from knowing what and how, to knowing who in terms of making connections and problem solving capability.

Networking also provides an opportunity for sharing experiences, thinking and learning with other participants. This enables the subtle challenging of basic assumptions and knowledge within a supportive environment for learning. In the right circumstances this can also enable members to develop relationships with individuals and disciplines they might not normally engage with.

Within urban drainage such networks are beginning to be developed and are a fundamental part of the action learning alliances. CIRIA through LANDFORM (Local Authority Network on Drainage and Flood Risk) provides an informal network and a means for peers to engage face-to-face at events on relevant topics ( This approach is also being mirrored by electronic, virtual networks which requires more facilitation but still provides an opportunity for participants to share knowledge and experiences. The Improvement Development Agency (IDeA) for local government has setup a Community of Practice on local flood risk management, called FLOWNET, providing a secure platform to share and develop knowledge on flooding and related challenges (

As a fragmented industry we are becoming clearer on the challenges we face and in doing so have accepted that organisations and individuals need to engage and participate to develop social capital and provide approaches that deliver multiple benefits.

Guidance on sustainable drainage is available and case studies have been disseminated for a number of years ( While there are technical challenges there are also behavioural aspects that need to be addressed to help improve the competence of relevant stakeholders and provide the confidence to deliver a more sustainable approach.

We need a vision to be innovatively and engagingly communicated and in some instances champions need to map the way forward and ensure that we build capacity of the necessary institutions, organisations and individuals.

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