Is the UK’s flood defence budget being well spent?

Current investment levels in flood prevention are not sufficient to match the expectations of society and these expectations will be raised higher if major flooding occurs this winter, says Matthew Elliott.

With 2017 having been a stormy year for politics, when it comes to the weather, the UK has had it rather easy.  A dry and mild winter, followed by a warm and dry spring, with summer and autumn rainfall also proving average, it begs the question whether the UK is ready for another winter of widespread flooding misery? 

Despite long term weather forecasting still being in the development stages, there are ways we can plan and protect ourselves from extreme flooding, based on evidence from records of past climate events.

Our current system of flood defences has evolved over many years, often as an immediate political response to a major flood rather as opposed to a consistent national strategy. As a result, the nation’s defences do not provide a consistent and acceptable standard of protection (SOP) and inevitably leave a ‘residual risk’ that must be managed. There is also disagreement about where the priorities for protection should lie, and the extent to which ‘hard defences’ should compromise the wider environment.

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It is important to appreciate that there are several types of flooding, with the government recognising coastal, river and surface water flooding as the most notable. In the recent civil emergencies risk register, published September 2017, coastal and river flooding are given equal ranking ahead of surface water flooding. 

Previously, coastal flooding had been given greater focus, no doubt recollecting the devastating coastal floods of January 1953, when over 300 people lost their lives along the east coast of England. The impact of a major surge-induced coastal flood on the coastal lowlands that line the UK’s east coast would understandably be much greater than river or surface water flooding of a similar return period.

The government is currently two years into its record level six-year £2.5 billion investment programme that aims to improve our system of defences against all types of flooding, with cost-benefit analysis being a key decider in how this £2.5bn investment is spent. This mechanism prioritises the defence of residential properties over business properties, infrastructure, and agricultural land. However, the cost-benefit mechanism does favour wealthy urban areas (such as in the south east of England) where property values are higher and any supplementary funding that may be needed to see a project through is more likely to be available. 

With investment in flood defences having arguably increased, leading academic experts remain concerned. The Climate Change Adaption Evidence (2016) emphasises “there is an urgent case for stronger policies” to address ‘flooding and coastal change risk to communities, business and infrastructure’. Additionally, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, Future Flood Prevention, argues that “current flood risk management structures are fragmented, inefficient and ineffective”. 

Others argue that the six-year £2.5bn investment programme itself unfairly favours the south east. Whilst the cost-benefit analysis that underlies flood defence spending decisions clearly does favour wealthier urban areas, it is not the only reason why investment is skewed towards the south east. 

Climate change experts predict the highest increases in fluvial flows and sea levels (relative to the land) in the south east of the UK. The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan, which aims to protect “1.3 million people and £275bn worth of property” in the area from tidal flood risk for the next century, positions the south east as an area of national importance. Projects of this scale therefore must be seen as justified national priorities.

Ultimately it is clear that funding for improved flood defences is not without its limits. Skills shortages in the industry already hamper the timely delivery of cost-effective solutions at current levels of investment. This is where a planned investment strategy for skills and industry training is fundamental to the progression of both defence initiatives and project delivery. 

It is clear current investment levels are not sufficient to match the expectations of society, which will only be highlighted if further major flooding occurs this winter. Unfortunately, another dry winter will mean the matter remains out of the headlines, and out of mind for our politicians. Undoubtedly, the government is heavily preoccupied with other issues, however the next nationally devastating flood cannot simply be postponed.

Matthew Elliott is director, engineering at WYG.