Flooding – the radical changes needed now

Members of the Environmental Industries Commission have pointed to the key issues for managing and reducing flood risk. The consensus is clear, says Matthew Farrow

Over recent years, a pattern has emerged in the UK of catastrophic flooding events accompanied by intense media coverage and pledges to review Government’s approach to floods, followed by limited follow up. Examples would be the endlessly delayed implementation of the Pitt Review’s sensible recommendations on SUDS (sustainable drainage systems), and Oliver Letwin holding just one meeting of the Cabinet Committee he was asked to set up following the Somerset floods in 2014.

In the wake of this winter’s bout of flooding, there are signs things will be different this time. Widescale flooding has become a regular event, bringing increased appreciation of both the human and financial costs (the impact of the recent flooding could amount to £5bn). Realisation that we have no option but to rethink the approach to flooding has become widespread. Cynics might add that the increasing numbers of public figures who have come to grief over flooding (Owen Paterson, Lord Chris Smith and Sir Philip Dilley spring to mind) has also focused attentions on the issue.

The Environmental Industries Commission has a number of member firms directly involved in flood mitigation, including flood defence technology manufactures and specialists in flood risk analysis. We have been discussing with them the key issues that need to be resolved. Several come up most prominently.

First, we need to get smarter at communicating flood issues to the public. For example, flood levels and risks are couched in terms of 1 in 100 or 1 in 200 year events, but such terminology can confuse as much as enlighten, especially as climate change makes previously rare events more frequent. 

Second, how we encourage homeowners in flood risk areas to protect their properties needs to improve. Government schemes such as the ‘Repair and Renew’ grant have struggled with inconsistent local authority promotion and limited take up (a Freedom Of Information request revealed that less than half of the funds allocated have been claimed). The public also needs help in discriminating between high quality equipment for defending their property from flooding and poorer quality material (or good quality equipment poorly installed) available in the market. The recently launched Flood Advisory Service ( should help here, as should a new British Standard.

Thirdly, the government and insurance industry initiative Flood Re is a good idea in principle but is aimed solely at helping households to secure affordable insurance against flooding. For many small business owners in flood affected areas, loss or damage to their home is compounded by the destruction of a business which may have been their main livelihood.

Fourth, we need to maximise the opportunities that ‘big data’ and data visualisation can offer in assessing and prioritising the best responses to flood risk. To be fair, this is something that Defra is already focused on – Defra Minister Rory Stewart’s speech at the recent launch event for the Institute of Environmental Analytics majored on the opportunity here.

Fifth, I have doubts over whether it is right for the Environment Agency to have responsibility for flooding as well as general environmental protection. Ideally it may be desirable to have a single agency spanning such a range of issues, but in practice the organisational skills and analysis involved in assessing and regulating the air quality impacts of a new waste treatment facility and managing a flooding crisis are very different. Many EA staff called to respond to flooding events are transferred from other areas of the organisation’s business.

Getting flood policy right is not easy. The sums of money involved are significant at a time of public sector cuts. Dilemmas over equity between citizens differing abilities to protect their property in different areas loom large. Climate change makes judging probabilities and risks a huge challenge.  But simply describing each flood event as ‘unprecedented’ and hoping things will get back to normal is not working – we need a more radical rethink.

Matthew Farrow is executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission