Developing strong flood policies

Richard Wills discusses how the Lincolnshire County Council secured flood protection for Lincolnshire's communities and why collaboration is key in ensuring further investment and appropriate consideration

Outside it is raining. The rain drops heavily from the sky to the earth ‘like stair rods’, my grandmother would have said. I doubt that anyone under 50 would know what a stair rod was. The raindrops are so large and so fast that they disintegrate on impact and the rebounding droplets form a misty layer across the surface of the bungalow's roof opposite where I sit. Puddles form in minutes, accumulating in previously unnoticed hollows on the road. All too quickly they overspill into streams of water, busily springing towards gardens, fields, watercourses or add to larger lakes fed by other torrents. Some flows even reach drains, designed to carry water – but not this much. It will not be long, if this cloudburst does not stop, before the devastation of flood becomes a reality once again.

It is Summer. Some of us might recall the water cycle from our school science. Molecules of H2O, which until recently were miles above our heads, are now attempting to complete the never ending cycle by returning to the sea.

Most of us do not have a sense of foreboding by heavy rain; most are simply fascinated by the power of nature. But if your house has filled with water, if you have seen your car washed away in a torrent that was once tarmac, or if you have felt the fear of rising water from a first floor window, then the mental anguish is great indeed. I have suffered none of these calamities. I am just acting as ‘Gold’ on-call duty, as I was in June 2007 when Lincolnshire suffered flooding, as did much of the UK during that Summer.

After those floods, the government commissioned Sir Michael Pitt to undertake a review of flood risk management. Unusually, it accepted all the recommendations. With political will from all parties in Parliament, relatively rapid progress was made on legislation that became the Floods and Water Management Act 2010.

Councillors in Lincolnshire acted quickly too. In September 2007 they told me to do whatever was necessary to secure flood protection for Lincolnshire's communities. I took them at their word. Collaboration and building better relationships was the only way forward - water has no respect of political and organisational boundaries! I realised that I had not sufficiently valued the Internal Drainage Boards (IDB), and started to take seriously their work. I worked on improving our relationship with the Environment Agency's (EA) area manager. I encouraged better working with Anglian Water and district councils. We now have a successful partnership between all the key players in water management. The EA leads the Strategy Group, reflecting its statutory role, and Lincolnshire County Council chairs the Management Group as the Lead Local Flood Authority. There is cross-representation between the two, so that there is consistency of approach. There are four Flood Risk and Drainage Management groups that deal with detailed issues. We have a common works programme for the various flood risk authorities, thus maximising the value of separate funding streams. IDBs undertake consents and enforcement work on behalf of the Lead Local Flood Authority.

Why have we been successful?
Collaboration, money and skilled people were essential. The collaboration was genuine. Leaders of organisations involved themselves and identified middle managers and people at the front line who shared their determination to find solutions, rather than advocate why it was not their organisation's problem. Money was made available for our work - we were not just holding out a begging bowl to others. Lincolnshire County Council willingly increased its precept to the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee. It offered £6 million towards two EA promoted flood relief schemes even before partnership funding had become the norm. It committed £11 million towards the Boston Barrier. Other partners have been equally forthcoming - councils, IDBs, the EA and Anglian Water set aside resources to make a desire to do something become a reality.

Talent was necessary to make good use of these resources, despite being in short supply. However, we recognised that within our organisations we had skilled people with expertise and experience; purpose and passion. Working collectively, we had enough to get us going.

There was one other success factor that made all this possible – political will. Councillors in Lincolnshire recognised the importance of good water management. More than 40 per cent of Lincolnshire is at or below sea level. Food manufacturing is a key sector for Greater Lincolnshire, producing and supplying over 12 per cent of the UK's food supply. This represents £2.5 billion of gross value added and the food sector directly employs 56,000 staff. These factors were recognised by executive councillors and we were one of the first areas to create a Flood Risk Overview and Scrutiny Group that includes councillors and other flood risk authority members.

The Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership examined the economic significance of improved flood risk management and water resource management. It commissioned its own study and has published its Water Management Plan, which makes the case for: improved education, research and training; water provision for growth; and flood risk reduction.

Will flooding be a priority?
So given its significance, why is it that sometimes politicians seem to forget flooding? After a period of government inactivity or cutbacks, those of us in the business often quip that we need another flood to give some impetus to flood management expenditure.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee appears to agree. It has reported that: ‘The government’s claim that spending on flooding has increased every five years does not reflect the fact that funding was initially planned to decline over the 2010–2015 Parliament and was only higher due to the reactive funding injection following the winter 2013/2014 floods. This approach is inefficient and goes against the advice of Sir Michael Pitt and Mark Worsfold in their reviews. We recommend that the Government adopt a more strategic approach to funding flood risk management which avoids such fluctuations in funding’.

The result of the EU referendum provides an opportunity and a threat to this goal. Prime Minister Theresa May’s astute appointments to her Cabinet, place leading Brexit campaigners in key roles. They will only have themselves to blame if they do not get the post-EU world that they believed was possible. If the Brexit arguments are right, then the UK government will have more money to allocate to its priorities. The Institution of Civil Engineers has made the post Brexit ‘Case for Infrastructure’ - long term investment for our future economy.

Flood risk management must surely have a priority call on some of that investment. So should we be optimistic? Well, one problem will be the energy that Andrea Leadsom, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can spare. Her department leads flooding policy but she will have to put considerable effort into replacement for the Common Agriculture Policy, the largest single block of EU money spent in the UK. With a relatively inexperienced minister, Therese Coffey, in charge of floods policy, there may not be sufficient political muscle to push forward arguments for additional money for flood risk measures.

Whether through devolution or continued pressure from business people and councillors, the Greater Lincolnshire area will continue to make flood risk management a high priority for funding. The consultation for the Boston Barrier scheme is underway. By working together, the EA has been able to make progress on this scheme and people are optimistic that this scheme will get to construction and be completed by 2019. We still have quite a long list to get through.

Virtually every society or religion has a great flood story. The impact of flood on people is so great - the fear of its devastation so real that it is embedded into the very culture of our existence and mythologised. We would do well to heed the truth behind the stories.

Richard Wills is executive director for Environment & Economy with Lincolnshire County Council; and a director of the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership.

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