Disruption from flooding costs the UK economy £1bn a year.
More than 2.44M properties in the UK are at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea. Another 3M are at risk from surface water flooding, and millions more at from sewer flooding.
So what do we do with the water as these numbers rise due to population growth, climate change and urbanisation?
Are news headlines guiding government flood defence policy? What are the blockers and enablers to increasing flood defence spending? And how can a balance be struck between hard flood defence solutions and softer measures?
New Civil Engineer hosted a round table debate with leading players in the flood defence sector to discuss these questions.
Wavin product manager Martin Lambley started by asking: “What does the future look like? Are we merely putting water into pipes and shoving it somewhere else?”
Environment Agency commercial strategy manager Mark Hagger said many good solutions are out there, and getting a balance of these solutions is key. “It’s also about getting the ones that are implementable, which means working with the local community. That can be seen in a lot of the work we’ve done in Cumbria after the [late 2015/early 2016] floods, in terms of close liaising with local communities, and it’s gone well.”
Greater London Authority London sustainable drainage action plan project manager George Warren added that it was good that surface water is being managed by councils, but many lack teh full suite of skills necessary to be lead local flood authorities. “Despite great efforts… it’s very hard to get schemes off the ground. And I think that is the downfall, at the moment, of that localised approach.
“Water flows over political boundaries,” he added.
Managing surface water
Warren said tidal and fluvial flooding has been managed better than surface flooding. “What we’ve come to neglect is the fact that we have a Victorian sewer system that’s supposed to be managing our surface water. Climate change, population growth – it’s even more ‘at capacity’ than it ever was. It’s some of the finest engineering, but we can’t expect it to hold everything forever.”
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And that is not just the urbanist’s view, said Association of Drainage Authorities chief executive Innes Thomson. “The government well and truly has its head in the sand over surface water management and we need to get a grasp on that.”
But pragmatists in the room acknowledged that the government’s purse strings are tight, and so the public sector has had to look for financial partners.
“Partnership funding means you can deliver bits of schemes all over the country, but without some consistency,” said Thames Estuary Asset Management 2100 Programme programme director Matt Kuhn. “Because everything is boiled down to an asset level – that bit you can protect, that bit you can’t – it’s very hard to put together catchment-based solutions. If you spread the benefit around the whole catchment, and it’s cost beneficial to do it, then you can perhaps benefit lots of these schemes.
Combined cost benefits
“A lot of the rural schemes and surface water schemes don’t stack up, but actually if you put them all together, with some of the fluvial, tidal schemes, then cost benefit-wise it works.”
Floodline Consulting technical director Faruk Pekbeken said his company’s experience in fully floating, can-float and flood resilient buildings has successfully pulled in private funding, but added that some of these progressive ideas hit brick walls at local government level.
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“So we have the funding, the sites, the mechanisms to avoid local flooding, method, knowledge and experience but it does come down to an inertia at council level,” said Pekbeken.
“The first thing everyone asks is: ‘what is the appetite of the authorities to sit down and look at these issues?’ We’ve looked at the plans, and find out that documents are signed off by a transportation engineer. There are no flood engineers within the organisations.”
The Environment Agency’s Hagger encouraged a look on the bright side: “I think we’re in danger of painting a picture of things a bit worse than they really are; the current six-year programme is more in real terms than we’ve had before, by about 9% over the period. Secondly, when we did a study on long-term investment – I think it’s now £750M a year, which is a lot of money on flood risk management and that’s only in the fluvial/coastal sector.
Protection in proportion
“In the last storm, Desmond, I think the number of houses protected was something like 300,000. Carlisle got the headlines. But a huge amount were protected.”
And increased risk of flooding from climate change is acknowledged in policies coming from Westminster and Downing Street, said Mott MacDonald global head, climate resilience Ian Allison.
“Fixed defences, flood defence walls, is that the solution? Yes, for as long as it works. As soon as it doesn’t, it becomes counterproductive because it traps the water.
“I think the only thing we can guarantee is that a 2%, 5%, 10% influence is not going to be enough, simply because it will be beaten the day after you finish your defences as we saw in Carlisle.”
He said his company has adopted a “resilience” theme: “Defend against water you can reasonably afford to defend against, but keep something over for resilience planning – for when you think those defences will be defeated, because they will.”
Mobilising private investment
Allison added that mobilising much more private sector investment was the key to translating flood management benefits into hard financial returns for investors. But why has this not been done already?
“I think the language we use has something to do with it,” said Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management chief executive Terry Fuller.
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“We talk about ‘third party contributions’… it makes it seem too much like we’re going cap in hand to the rich private sector, which is completely the wrong mentality. The private sector is just looking for good business decisions and good business discussions.”
“We have to understand business, their drivers and their motivators,” added JBA Consulting technical director Lance Dawkins. “Most of us in the flood management sector are public sector people or most of our clients are public sector people.”
Kuhn said the predominant funding model in London policy-making circles is pay-per-use.
“How do you translate that [to flood management]? One of the things we’re looking at on the Thames Estuary is, when the Thames Barrier shuts, showing how much would have flooded, because people in central London don’t even know it [the barrier] exists.
Sharing the problem
Waterco’s Peter Jones took up this thread: “One out of six homes in the UK is under flood risk. But that means five in six will say ‘it’s not my problem’.
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“We’re not like the Dutch in that way, we’re not all in it together. Not at all. So is it then surprising the way we react when a flood event happens?”
Fuller said one way Brits are “all in it together” is through insurance premiums. “Because we’re all paying for flood risk management, through premiums. I don’t think it will last. But many people don’t realise that it’s even happening. Therefore, as a nation, is that not a catalyst for some change in mentality?”
Thomson said that post-flood events in Somerset had shown taxation to be effective. “What the government said was ‘okay, we’re going to put an extra 1.75% on to your Council Tax’. A notional settlement I think it was called. It was amazing how the whole of Somerset County came together and said ‘oh that’s just a few extra pence’. They now raise an extra £2.5M a year through this.”
At the table
Ian Allison Global head, climate resilience, Mott MacDonald
Lance Dawkins Technical director, JBA Consulting
Terry Fuller Chief executive, Chartered Institution for Water & Environmental Management
Mark Hagger Commercial strategy manager, Environment Agency
Mark Hansford Editor, New Civil Engineer
Robert Henson Features editor, New Civil Engineer
Peter Jones Managing director, Waterco
Matt Kuhn Programme director, Thames Estuary Management 2100 Programme
Martin Lambley Product manager, foul, utilities and water management, Wavin
Faruk Pekbeken Technical director, Floodline Consulting
Paul Shaffer Associate, Construction Industry Research & Information Association
Innes Thomson Chief executive, Association of Drainage Authorities
George Warren Project manager – London sustainable drainage action plan, Greater London Authority
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