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Comment | Forget the 3 H’s, it’s F for flooding that needs the funding

Mark Hansford

Transport, energy and digital: all important infrastructure needs. But what about flood defence?

Disruption from flooding costs the UK economy £1bn per year. There are 2.44M properties at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea, another 3M more at risk from surface water flooding, and countless more at risk from sewer flooding. Of all these, almost a quarter of a million – 244,000 – at high risk of flooding. And there’s no hiding it – these numbers are set to increase in future due to population growth and climate change.


Cumbria floods

An aerial view of flood damaged area in Workington as floods submerge large parts of Cumbria.

Those statistics are from this week’s National Needs Assessment – the ICE-led, 15 month study into the UK’s infrastructure needs to 2050. The plan is that this study will feed into the National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment, due to be published next summer.

The Needs Assessment makes some bold statements. Not least that we cannot afford to spend our way out of infrastructure challenges simply by building new capacity. “Nor would that be the smart choice,” it says. “Technology, enabled by the right policies, provides the opportunity to use new and existing infrastructure capabilities much more efficiently,” it adds.

That’s a very sound and reasoned argument in many infrastructure sectors – driverless cars and road pricing in highways, digital railways in rail and smart grids and batteries in energy all have a massive role to play in the future. But in flood defence, when the story is about holding back – or mitigating the impact of – extreme weather, there really is a limited role that technology can play.

Engineering solutions are always going to be needed, whether that is hard defences or softer, upland catchment management techniques.

And that’s the problem – because the money just isn’t there to deliver these in the quantity that we need. As the Needs Assessment makes clear, modelling shows that £750M to £920M a year will be needed to maintain a climate-adjusted current level of risk for the expected annual damage reduction of 4% to 24% in the next 50 years.

How current funding match up to that? Well, right now many would say the Environment Agency is blessed with a six year, £2.3bn funding settlement for capital and maintenance spend. On top of that it is working its way through a £700M bonus pot awarded by government to help it deal with the aftermath of last winter’s storms. But that £3bn over six years clearly falls well short of the National Needs Assessment’s calculated need.

So how can the gap be bridged? Technology isn’t going to do it. And politics plays a big part too – solving a problem downstream can easily create a problem upstream; hard engineering solutions are often not popular and buiding a business case using relatively unproven upland catchment management techniques is difficult.

New Civil Engineer’s Flood Management Forum showed the extent of that problem. Delegates heard how £350M of that £700M emergency funding pot was still unassigned and how Lead Local Flood Authorities are reluctant to sign off on unproven flood defence measures.

Here we are, in an industry where government is expected offer up more cash for infrastructure in its Autumn Statement - and where the National Infrastructure Assessment is about to get into full flow - and we have a sector that cannot spend the cash it has got.

What are the barriers? Lack of ambition? Risk aversion? Red tape? Egos? Comfort and tradition? Lack of the right skills? All were offered at the Forum as potential pitfalls and there is something to be said about all of them.

But there are plenty of examples of ambitious projects, where project teams are stepping out of the comfort zone; arguing – successfully – for cash. Whether it is Cumbria County Council’s winter flood recovery or Pickering’s innovative upland catchment management, there is great engineering going on. What is now required is for more to be made of it so that others are encouraged and the flood defence community can make its claim. No, more than claim, it’s need. It’s need for more funds so that the economy is not slowed and, far more importantly, those five million people can sleep easy at night. Not too much to ask is it?


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