Why collaboration is key to flood risk management

In light of September’s National Flood Resilience Review, Paul Cobbing, of the the National Flood Forum, discusses the importance of engaging with people about the residual risk of flooding

After each major flood, attention is focused on over-topped defences, ageing and failing infrastructure and a critique of how the various agencies and authorities responded. It’s a blame game of what went wrong and why - surely it must be someone or something’s fault?

This is a perfectly understandable and human response, as people are traumatised and angry and need to vent their frustrations. We have had serious regional flooding every year since 2000, with the exception of 2011. Many thousands of households and businesses have been affected and the impact can be life changing. People live with the fear of it happening again, and unlike other forms of trauma this is quite realistic as people do get flooded repeatedly.

Whilst we need to accept that even with the best, highest or biggest defences in the world water will still sometimes find a way through, the scale of recent flooding means that we need to act. This means investing in leadership, time, resources and funds across society. It will require coordinated action in each place on planning, economic interventions, health, well-being and resilience, as well as flood risk management.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) Future Flood Prevention report helpfully opened up the discussion on how best we can achieve this. If we are to create a societal shift towards flooding being everyone’s responsibility, we must take a holistic approach to reducing flood risk. This means using all the tools available to us, underpinned by greater collaboration across all sectors – including local and national government.

Householders and businesses have a role to play as part of an overall approach, but this will require a change in how organisations and individual behave. This requires transparency so that people can see where they fit into the flood risk management jigsaw.

Collaborative support
At the National Flood Forum, we support people across the country who are at risk of flooding. Whether that’s after a flood when we offer practical advice and emotional support throughout the long and stressful recovery period, or if it’s to work with flood risk communities to identify their flooding issues and seek solutions – we believe collaboration is key if we are to take a holistic approach to reducing flood risk.

Our commitment to working at the grassroots pays dividends when we bring community groups together with the agencies and authorities who have responsibility for managing flood risk. By setting out the issues and mapping a clear plan of action, we see results. But this requires a commitment on both sides to listen to the challenges, consider the constraints and seek out sensible solutions.

We often hear that communities feel they’re not being listened to. Decisions are taken in offices far removed from the site of the problem, without factoring local knowledge and expertise into the mix. Very often it’s the people who live locally who best understand how the water falls and flows through the catchment and where the trouble spots are. By combining expertise from both perspectives, we find opportunities for innovation.

For example, we are seeing greater focus on catchment based approaches, managing water from where the rain lands all the way to the sea. There is a growing interest from communities in ‘natural flood risk management’, to delay and speed up water flow through a catchment to reduce the peaks of water that often cause flooding.

This is only one of many solutions, but by working with people to explore how it may compliment other measures, we see greater buy-in and strengthened community relationships. After all, word of mouth within a community is often a very powerful asset.

Are we planning to flood?
Apart from the fear of flooding again, we know that insurance is a major concern for people at flood risk. Flood Re, the measure to make household insurance more affordable for high risk areas was introduced in April this year and lasts until 2038. So, let’s be bold in our vision for how we tackle flood risk and ensure that by the time it runs out there isn’t a need for further market intervention.

Alongside insurance, development is a major issue that worries people at risk of flooding. Whether it’s a new, planned or permitted development, or the threat of flooding from existing new builds, people are worried that their lives will be placed at risk. So, we as a charity are aiming to help push this higher up the agenda through our 2017 conference – Are we planning to flood?

With a growing population, an increasing demand for housing, an ageing infrastructure and the effects of climate change, the impact of flooding is likely to increase and with it the human and economic costs. So, what can we do now to make sure we’re planning and building flood resilient communities for the future? Where is the evidence that our planning system is working? How do we ensure developers are delivering resilient communities?

We are keen to explore how planners, developers and local people can work together to make sure that existing and new developments are sustainable – not just today, but in 30 years-time?

Collaboration is key and our conference will discuss the development challenge from different perspectives. It will highlight success stories where partnerships between developers and communities are paying off and share innovative projects where flood resilience measures have been built-in retrospectively and are working well. We will also address what we need to do to create a society that is willing and wants to adapt.

A systems based approach
Which brings us to a problem that is extremely current - property level resilience, the practice of reducing the risk of water getting in to your home, and if it does, of minimising the damage. How can more people be encouraged to adapt their homes to be flood resilient, as part of a wider package of flood risk management measures? When they do work on their homes and businesses to better protect themselves, how can they be sure that the systems they are installing are appropriate and will help?

Without independent guidance, it is almost impossible for a householder or small business to be sure that the measures they take to reduce the risk of water getting in to their home will work. We rapidly need an accredited and certified, systems based approach that will give confidence to insurance and mortgage companies, as well as the householder, in much the same way that installing a gas boiler is linked to standards, accreditation and maintenance contracts. The issue of reducing the impact of water on your property is perhaps slightly easier, but better guidance is needed for householders, surveyors and the building industry.

For the National Flood Forum, these issues are our bread and butter. Through our flood exhibitions and work with communities we can help people navigate their way through what flood resilience means to them, what they need to consider, how what they do can fit in to a wider package of measures in their area and how by working with their neighbours they can begin to take control of the flood risk in their lives. We give impartial, independent advice on products and services to allow people to make informed decisions about the resilience measures that will best suit their homes and lifestyle. Local authorities often call on us to help roll this information out in their areas.

We hope the launch of The Property Flood Resilience Action Plan will finally give this area of flood risk management the attention it needs. Without rapid action it will get the reputation of the double glazing industry in the 1970s and the opportunities that it presents to help make people’s lives better will be lost.

The whole issue of managing flood risk over the coming decades is huge, but we need to understand what it is that we are trying to deliver. Whilst we will never eliminate risk, our ambition must be to get rid of the large scale trauma that we experience every year. Flood risk managers and communities can’t do this on their own. We need all parts of society to actively contribute.

The National Flood Forum conference, Are we planning to flood? will be on 1 February 2017 at SOAS in London.

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