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Flooding Fright - Environment Agency boss Barbara Young on the challenges ahead

The catastrophic and largely unprecedented flooding across the UK this summer has left Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young in no doubt about the challenges facing her organisation.

It is not just about throwing money at the problem and building more defences, she says. Real changes in thinking and political priority are needed to push adaption to climate change rapidly up the national agenda.

“I don’t think that the UK can afford to be flood proofed to point that no flood will ever happen,” she explains. “But I think that we can be flood proofed better than we are.”

That said, the extra £200M promised by government for flood defence in July is, Young says, very welcome “real new money,” she says. But she points out that it doesn’t kick in for three years and that it is unclear how much of this cash the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will allocate to the Agency.

“We’re pressing to know soon – not just to know what we are going to get in three years time, but also what we will get next year and the year after,” she explains. “To spend a lot more money in year three you have got to have worked up plans in years one and two – and they cost money to work up.”

And make no mistake, despite the Environment Agency’s flood defence budget steadily climbing in the seven years since Young joined the department, she wants as much money to invest as possible.

“We want all of it – [but] whether we get all of it is another matter,” says Young in the typically determined manner of an experienced political operator. “We are aware of a backlog of work needed to defend vulnerable communities, and if we were to spend at £200M a year extra for quite a number of years, we would begin to work that backlog off.

Of course as the levels of funding increase so does the public scrutiny. Her recent robust defence in the face of severe criticism by MPs over the state of the nation’s flood defences demonstrated her passionate belief that the cash is being spent wisely.

But Young points out that the recent events also showed the value of the work now underway to reassess the required standard of defences. In particular to ask if we need to spend so much.

“Less than 1% of floods are caused by asset failure. So there is something about the way we categorise our assets that needs to be reviewed. What is a fit-for-purpose asset quality?” she says.

As the debate about whether we should be designing to defend against one in 200, 300 – even one in 1,000 year events – continues, Young is adamant that business-as-usual is not an option. The world and its climate is changing, she says. Adapting to this new reality must be at the heart of all future flood defence policy and that means investing early to prevent future disasters.

“Stern said pay up front because downstream it will cost more,” she says referring to the recent Treasury backed report into adapting to climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern.
“The flood schemes we fund now repay their investment six times over – mopping up costs far more than building schemes.”

This need is particularly acute when it comes to flood-proofing critical infrastructure, one of the most important lessons from this year’s floods, says Young.

Environment Agency research shows that an alarmingly high proportion of the nation’s critical infrastructure is on a flood plain. This includes roads, railways, electricity distribution stations, sewage treatment works, waterworks, police stations, fire stations, hospitals, health centres and schools.

“What we are pushing for is that the responsibility that each of these providers has for its own resilience actually gets pressed home,” she says. “The sort of event that we saw in July is the sort of event that will become increasingly frequent. They need to think: ‘what do I need to do to defend my vital installation?’.”

The summer floods also renewed emphasis on the need to reassess and coordinate surface water drainage systems. Overloaded drainage contributed to much of the recent flooding.

“At the moment, the responsibility is spread widely. Local authorities, developers, rail and road operators and water companies all have an involvement. As a result, there is no coordination in planning,” she says.

Young believes there should be a national coordinator for surface water and river flood defence plans – a role that she is happy to take. But she points out that there is also a role for local authorities in tackling local and regional surface water issues.

“It’s about getting a view on how these systems work – how they all fit together,” she explains. “How do the drains in the urban setting fit with the sewers from the water companies, [or] the road drains provided by the highway authority? How does the water run around and where are the hotspots.”

Increased use of sustainable drainage design is crucial, but Young accepts that more must be done to clarify who is responsible for maintenance.

Better urban and rural planning is also important. Young points out that the summer floods have reinforced the need to outlaw inappropriate development on flood plains.

Much of the property damaged this summer was built in high flood-risk areas over the past three decades. This highlights the need for local authorities to use newly introduced, tougher powers to prevent such projects. “And if they don’t,” she adds, “then we will.”

Overall, the summer floods, were a huge wake-up call. “Everyone has had a huge fright.”

Young is pinning her hopes not just of securing more funding to boost defences, but also on getting new climate change adaptation policies enshrined in law via the forthcoming Climate Change Bill. Current drafts of the legislation are, she believes, “a bit thin on adaptation”.
With this legislation, the new government planning policy statement PPS25, and growing pressure from the insurance industry, she feels that there is a real chance that proper planning will rise up the agenda.

“The nation has to ask itself: ‘what level of protection can we afford?’” she says. “You can’t ever say we are going to prevent all floods - it would cost a fortune. It’s a debate we need to have – in the end it does come down to money.”

Barbara Young will open the NCE water summit on 18/19 September.


1. Critical infrastructure is insufficiently protected against flooding.
“The sort of event that we saw in July is the sort of event that will become increasingly frequent. Infrastructure owners need to think “what do I need to do to defend my vital installation against it”

2. High rainfall intensity and hardscaping over-loads surface drainage.
“We do need to crack the issue of who’s going to have the role of overseeing flooding on land. At the moment the responsibility is down to a whole plethora of people.”

3. Development on the flood plain needs properly planned flood mitigation.
“Local authorities have really got to carry out their responsibilities for preventing this inappropriate development on the flood plain. And if they don’t then we will ask for call in.”

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