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We need a paradigm shift in flood risk management

We need to invest to deliver more and better flood solutions if we are to seriously tackle climate change.

Flooding is second only to pandemic flu in terms of risk to the UK. As the adaptation subcommittee of the committee on climate change has just identified in its latest report, the recent tidal surge and the relentless winter floods have highlighted the reality of extreme events.

There have been calls for urgent action from the media and affected communities. But the necessary investments needed to ensure our national infrastructure is resilient to extreme weather risks are not yet being made. It’s important that we promote resilience, as well as facilitate and encourage economic growth; harnessing flood risk solutions to unlock development potential, and investing to adapt and protect our existing infrastructure.

Sustainable resilient water management is costly, involving engineering and land use challenges. It poses difficulties for planning sustainable development in the floodplain. It works against the pressure for lower public sector spending. So we need a paradigm shift in the way we manage flood risk to change this perception. We see media coverage and political debate about other forms of infrastructure, such as airports and high speed rail, and accepted cases for investment. However, the case for the necessary investment in resilient flood risk infrastructure, supported by an informed approach to planning for growth in the floodplain, has still not been fully recognised.

It has been difficult for decision-makers to grasp the complex interrelationships between climate change, economic and population growth and water management. This lack of understanding has in turn influenced the political priority given to flood risk management. As a result, the current programme of investment to protect people and infrastructure in the future is still not enough to respond to the challenges of climate change.

Decision-makers need to understand and recognise the linkages between economic growth, development pressures, population change and flood risk management, to deliver strong business cases for investment.

World class flood policy already exists in the UK. But frustratingly, it is not being implemented at the moment. Previous policy initiatives, including the Pitt Review, and the Environment Agency’s long term investment srategy, have already set out clearly what should be done. Rather than throw old policy out with the floodwater, our decision-makers should deliver against this lead. They should listen to the clear message from engineers and scientists, reinforced by the adaptation subcommittee – the government’s own independent advisers on climate change – and take immediate action on accelerating investment to manage flood risk.

  • Katherine Pygott is director of water management at Peter Brett Associates

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