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Homes built on floodplains

Debate

A government report has recommended allowing homes built in low lying areas to flood so the sites can be used as stormwater reservoirs.

This week we ask: Should people be prepared to abandon their houses if they are built on floodplains to allow rivers to flood?

Yes

Dr Mervyn Bramley, flood defence development manager, Environment Agency

Abandoning any house to allow rivers to flood is an extreme action. So what are the circumstances in which people may have to do this within the government's current stategy for flood defence?

We need floodplains as part of the natural river system. They provide capacity for floods to flow unimpeded (restriction increases flood levels) and storage that reduces peak flows downstream. Past development in the UK has affected both of these beneficial functions. This in turn has increased the flood risk to people living elsewhere in the river catchment.

We are also living at a time of increasing flood risk due to climate change. Planning scenarios from the UK Climate Impacts Programme suggest that peak flows for a given return period could increase by up to 20% within 50 years.

Flood defence policy makers and planners have to take a strategic view of managing flood risk sustainably throughout the whole catchment. Decisions on catchment flood management strategies and flood defence schemes need to reflect the overall public interest and may not suit everyone.

Thus the best option for reducing flood risk in some urban communities will be to reduce flood levels by removing critical buildings and widening the river corridor to increase flow capacity. This is done abroad and is being considered in some UK schemes.

Other future strategic options may see acquisition of property on land needed for flood storage. In these cases, abandonment for better flood management would come with compensation.

Flood defences can only be provided where the costs can be justified by the value of the assets protected.

We need to help people in isolated undefended houses within the floodplain to adapt to increasing flood risk and make their houses more flood resistant.

The Environment Agency is championing the use of local flood protection and flood resistant construction for this. But here, we must accept there will be a 'front' of extreme cases where increasing flooding and the costs of maintaining the fabric will lead to other houses being abandoned.

No

Gillian Holland, secretary, Bewdley residents flood defence committee

Houses in Bewdley have flooded regularly for the past century.

We bought our house knowing that. After a major flood, the price of property drops, insurance companies withdraw flood cover and with mortgages increasingly difficult to obtain, many houses will be sold for cash and rented out.

Gradually the community builds up local knowledge on flooding and puts the necessary support into place. Householders take practical steps to make their homes more flood resistant and the contents less vulnerable. (Here there is an urgent need for insurance companies to accept that money for flood damage repair should be spent with flood resistance in mind).

In response to last year's flooding, the Environment Agency has fast-tracked a scheme which will (at a considerable cost) protect 151 houses in Bewdley while maintaining the character of the river front.

However, 32 houses which lie on the left bank of the Severn, including mine, will not be defended under the scheme, as the cost/benefit ratio according to which funding is allocated does not justify defences for this area.

Defences would be welcome, but given a long warning period, the availability of upper floors for the storage of possessions and the knowledge that flooding is likely, it is perfectly possible to live with a certain level of intermittent flooding, as indeed we have in the past. Along with a cycle of government and agency activity triggered by extreme flood events, followed by complacency and inactivity during a quieter period, there is the parallel cycle of community response in adapting and 'learning to live with rivers'.

I would argue that any group of listed buildings standing in a conservation area is by definition worthy of defence from flooding and this must apply in other historic towns at risk. The unique nature of such environments must be protected.

We shall stay put. A different solution obviously must be found for those who bought houses newly-constructed on the floodplain. Such people are hardly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves, and should either be protected or adequately compensated so they can move.

The facts

Autumn 2000 was one of the wettest in England and Wales for over 270 years. Some 10,000 properties were flooded, although 280,000 were successfully protected from the floods. The damage was estimated to have cost £1bn.

The replacement value of flood defence infrastructure in England and Wales is estimated at £5.5bn, according to the recent government report 'Learning to live with rivers', published by the ICE. The equivalent figure for coastal infrastructure is around £16bn.

A National Audit Office report has estimated that 40% of flood defences are in fair to poor or very poor condition.

Environment minister Elliott Morley announced last week that he has approved a £6.5M strategy for flood defences in Bewdley, Worcestershire, involving the construction of demountable aluminium defences.

Opinion poll

Last week we asked: Does automatic train protection represent good value for money?

47% Yes

35% No

18% Don't Know

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