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Analysis | Failure of flood defences causes strategy rethink

The failure of defences to deal with the Christmas floods in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland is forcing politicians among others to investigate more innovative mitigation strategies.

The dismally familiar sight of people wading through their kitchens in wellies and being rescued from their front doors in rubber dinghies over the Christmas period looks to have had at least one positive outcome.

Although the nearly unprecedented levels of rain in the North of England paint a bleak picture about the consequences of climate change, they might also be remembered as the point when politicians and the media finally started to embrace a more nuanced approach to flood risk management.

Leeds flooding 2007

Leeds flooding 2007

Flooding in Leeds in June 2007

Flood resilience specialists, the Environment Agency and isolated voices in the press such as Guardian columnist George Monbiot were calling for a catchment-wide approach to water level management two years ago when flooding hit the Somerset levels. At the time they enjoyed the brief support of an off-message environment secretary, Owen Patterson, before being shouted down by vocal local residents and a media campaign that persuaded David Cameron that dredging of the River Parrett was the best way to respond to the flooding – or at least the best way to be seen to respond.

The rapid return of the almost monotonously familiar images of streets submerged in murky water on 24-hour news channels and, more importantly, the failure of existing flood defences to prevent such scenes, seem to have sparked a search for new answers and a burgeoning appreciation for the more holistic approach espoused by the experts.

Even the Association of Drainage Authorities, which has endured criticism in some quarters for being in thrall to the interests of landowners and for protecting fields and crops ahead of cities, is now calling for change.

“Now is the time for us to look at a catchment-wide approach to managing water from the highest points in our hills and mountains to our estuaries and lowland areas,” says chief executive Innes Thomson. “River catchments are like trees with many branches leading into a main trunk. The tree survives on all its component parts working together.”

Warming to this theme, and possibly realising that they needed a new flood motif, the news channels and newspapers have started repeating the catchment-wide mantra. Sunday supplements have printed helpful graphics explaining how general management of the catchment, the planting of trees and clever use of the flood plain could combine with new development laws, new building techniques and hard defences to mitigate the impact of extreme weather.

Arup global flood resilience leader David Wilkes thinks the resounding success of unconventional schemes such as the £2M flood resilience project his company worked on in Pickering, Yorkshire, has helped to change perceptions.

“We completed the flood scheme in Pickering about a year ago. It involved a flood storage reservoir but also river locking – the use of wooden dams and upper catchment management,” says Wilkes. “Pickering did not flood in the Christmas period. The people from the town saw flooding in places around them and they saw that their scheme worked and then they told the press how wonderful it is.”

Jaap Flikweert, director water governance and strategy at Royal HaskoningDHV, who happened to be on holiday in Lancashire at the time of the Christmas floods and who has developed something of a sideline as a flood expert for the Dutch media, can also see perceptions starting to change.

“To be honest, the Pitt Review after the 2007 floods made quite a big point about working with natural processes and since then, there has been a process of starting to make it happen,” he says. “But it takes time to build up the evidence before people are willing to invest in it.”

Unlike the Netherlands, however, Flikweert thinks the UK will never have the issue fully under control. “There will always be a residual risk,” he says. “In the UK, flooding is never going to be a matter of national survival as it is in the Netherlands and if you want to reduce flood risk to same level, it’s very expensive.”

So while the wherewithal might now exist to attempt more innovative flood mitigation strategies, we return to the more vexed question of finding the money to implement them. Over to you George Osborne.

Analysis | Failure of flood defences causes strategy rethink

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  • Before we can say the Pickering scheme prevented flooding we need to know the rainfall intensity it experienced. Was the Pickering catchment subject to the same record levels of rainfall that caused flooding elsewhere?

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