This summer the flooding gods have struck Houston and southern Texas and the devastation caused there has been broadcast far and wide.
Earlier this month, much of Houston and the towns surrounding it were underwater and 60 people were confirmed dead as a result of Tropical Storm Harvey.
Ten years ago, it was Britain facing the onslaught and a summer of devastating storms. A staggering 48,461 homes and 6,896 businesses were flooded. The recovery effort took months. Thirteen people died.
In the immediate aftermath, the government commissioned Sir Michael Pitt to conduct a root and branch review of the country’s preparedness for, and response to, extreme weather events. His review was published the following year but now, 10 years on fromthe floods that prompted it, what has happened?
The floods have not stopped: major floods in 2012 were swiftly followed by the winter 2013/14 event – remember the Somerset Levels dredging debate? – and then more in Cumbria in 2015.
So surely implementing Pitt’s recommendations is more important than ever?
The general consensus is that the Pitt Review was an outstanding attempt to improve UK flood resilience and defences. And that despite making 92 recommendations many, although not all, have been implemented.
A major tick was the speed at which the Met office and the Environment Agency set up their joint office to provide more accurate flood warnings and mapping. Past ICE president and flood expert professor David Balmforth describes this as “world class”.
As a result, the UK is in pretty good shape. But, as the world grapples with climate change, flood risk increases and the UK needs to keep pace. Long term investment has improved, with flood defence spend moving from being annually updated and promoted to a five year investment pot. This, Balmforth argues, means the Environment Agency can plan longer term and therefore get better value for money.
The government has committed pots of money at various strategic intervals since 2007 but it was not until December 2014, the day before that year’s Autumn Statement, that ministers announced a £2.3bn flood defence spending programme
The government has committed pots of money at various strategic intervals since 2007 but it was not until December 2014, on the day before that year’s Autumn Statement, that ministers announced a £2.3bn flood defence spending programme to 2021. This includes money for the Boston Barrier, the Oxford Western Conveyance scheme and the Rossall Coastal Defence Improvement project.
A further £700M was promised in the March 2016 Budget for spending over the following five years, funded by a rise in the standard rate of insurance premium tax. Leeds, York and Carlisle were among the cities told they would benefit.
There have been other packages along the way, many specifically designed to help regions affected by individual flood events.
It means that funding is now nearly at the levels that the Environment Agency’s analysis of long-term investment scenarios suggests is required.
The Agency estimates that the optimal investment profile in the first 10 years (from 2014) will be around £750M to £800M a year in present day costs. It says it expects this to rise from £850M to £900M a year between the 2020s and the 2040s. The Agency also estimates that this investment will lead to a 12% reduction in flood damage over the next 50 years. But there are still some huge areas of concern. Notably, how is protection provided for smaller communities? Partnership funding – involving private finance – was introduced to level the funding playing field but has not worked terribly well, say most experts.
The funding approach change was signalled in 2011, with non-government cash often required to get schemes moving.
Matching the government cash
The principle is that community contributions are matched by government cash, with the amount of private sector cash required determined, according to the cost benefit ratio of the scheme.
About a quarter of all financial contributions to flood protection projects led by the Environment Agency in 2013/14 and 2014/15 came from outside the public sector via this method.
On a positive note, consultant Royal Haskoning DHV’s flood and coastal management advisor Jaap Flikweert points to a scheme in Norfolk where local businesses were able to secure funding for a flood defence scheme using partnership funding. But they were able to raise their part of the funding, which is not something a residential community can easily do.
JBA Consulting technical director Lance Dawkins, describes this as an “insurmountable problem” and argues that there should be “some special mechanism” to allow funding “where there is an obvious need”. Floodline technical director Faruk Pekbeken goes further, describing flooding as “Britain’s earthquakes”. As one in six houses in the UK are in a flood zone, he says, “tens of thousands of villages and towns will not get flood protection” under partnership funding.
Working with developers
Pekbeken believes the way around this is for local authorities to work with developers to provide flood protection for new and existing communities. This is what his company advises on. He says progress is often slow because local authorities lack the in-house expertise to advocate for flood work or understand its worth – even if developers put it on the table at negotiations. Other priorities such as roads and education trump flooding, leaving communities vulnerable.
This is an area where the Pitt Review recommendations, had they been implemented, may have helped. It was recommended that councils strengthen their technical capability so they could take the lead on local flood risk management. But local authority funding has been cut drastically and many – although not all – councils find themselves without in-house expertise. Instead they contract out flood work or draft in their own engineers with specialisms in other areas.
With local authorities under huge financial pressure and the housing crisis pushing them to build more homes, a pressing concern is how to balance this with the need for flood mitigation measures. Balmforth argues that currently there is a “disconnect” between the planning process and flood risk management. More houses will be built, and he argues that their impact on existing dwellings as well as their own flood resilience must be better planned.
Weak Environment Agency powers
There is a strong feeling that while the Environment Agency has made great strides, it does not have strong enough powers.
Dawkins points out that it is unable to veto plans to build on a flood plain. Balmforth adds that while the Agency has the strategic role of overseeing flood management it lacks the “teeth” to bring everyone together. Compare the Agency’s role to that of the Dutch flood commissioner, who has huge clout.
Building Regulations remain a huge problem too. An overhaul was called for by Pitt and there are industry concerns about the use of unrealistic “hard edge” flood mapping.
“Building Regulations do not require developers to provide flood resilience outside of the flood zone,” says consultant Waterco director Pedr Jones.
Building Regulations do not require developers to provide flood resilience outside of the flood zone
Pedr Jones, Waterco
“The maps are quite black and white, so you might be just outside and not have any resilience.”
Directly related to this, and another area that has been slow to get going, is resilience in buildings. The Pitt Review wanted flood resilient properties “to become the norm rather than the exception”, but work in this area has only just started to gain momentum.
In 2015, the Property Level Flood Resilience Round table, chaired by BRE chief executive Peter Bonfield, was asked by ministers to look at ways of helping people protect their properties and businesses from the effects of flooding.
Its recommendations were published last autumn and included calls for clearer explanations of effective property level resilience measures; appropriate training programmes for surveyors; and work with mortgage providers to explain the benefits of interventions.
For floods over 600mm depth, or of prolonged duration, attempting to keep the water out can cause serious structural damage
Peter Bonfield, BRE
The Bonfield Report said actions to improve property resilience could include installation of flood doors, non-return valves and air brick covers; waterproofing brickwork; and moving electricity sockets higher above the floor.
“Properties need a package of measures, some of which prevent water entering a house and others that minimise the impact, should water enter the house,” it says.
“Sometimes the water should be let in. For floods over 600mm depth, or of prolonged duration, attempting to keep the water out can cause serious structural damage, owing to the unequal water pressures either side of the walls.”
The report says that within five years, it should be standard practice for properties at high risk of flooding to be built with resilient measures. The BRE has taken this work on and recently completed a demonstration home that is resistant to flood waters 600mm deep.
Bigger strides needed
But these are small steps. Clearly the Pitt recommendations concerning public awareness are not sinking in. It is not yet standard for at-risk residents to have an emergency flood kit – as recommended by Pitt.
Many households do not appear to understand the risks, while government and industry understand that a serious flood is not an unusual event. He adds: “the terminology is confusing – a 1 in 100 year flood is a 1% flood risk, but people take 100 to mean it isn’t going to happen for 99 years.”
Meanwhile properties built on flood plains are still being snapped up, and while desperation caused by the housing crisis is undoubtedly a factor, it is unclear whether buyers are clear about the risks. Even the most detailed house survey only provides basic information about flood risk and they fail to indicate how badly a property could be affected in the event of a serious flood.
Mott MacDonald global water practice leader – rivers and flooding Fiona Barbour, makes the point that while Pitt recommended that building on flood plains should be the “absolute exception”, “the housing pressure is so great, particularly in the denser areas of the South East, that most planning applications could be seen as exceptions”.
Building on floodplains continues
“So in reality, I do not think there has been improvement in a response to this recommendation,” she says.
Greater public understanding of the benefits of flood risk management is clearly needed. Dawkins says engineers have a role to play here, encouraging the government to sing louder about the success stories.
“We need to show people ‘this town would have been flooded if we hadn’t spend x million pounds on it’,” he says.
The elephant in the room is the promotion of sustainable drainage systems (SuDs) to regulate water levels in developed areas. SuDS use a range of techniques to safely slow water flow, allowing it to be managed close to where rain falls rather than overwhelming local areas or being piped away to a river, potentially causing flooding downstream.
Water climate change flooding 01 070208
Pitt’s review floods called for the government to legislate to allow SuDS to be used to manage flood risk.
A decade on and there is still some debate as to whether this has been achieved. No-one has yet taken on responsibility for SuDs as recommended by Pitt. Construction Industry Research & Information Association associate Paul Shaffer says: “It’s still very much based on developing good relationships and champions within the lead authorities in terms of delivering sustainable drainage.”
Government planning guidelines saying SuDS should be put into new developments came into force in April 2015, – but only if the schemes were of 10 homes or more (or equivalent size), and if SuDS were not “demonstrated to be inappropriate”.
Worse, Schedule 3 of the Flood & Water Management Act to develop statutory standards for the technical design of sustainable drainage has not been implemented. And local flood authority bodies in charge of approving and adopting SuDs have not been created.
Balmforth says it may be possible for water companies to take charge of SuDs once a development has been completed, as long as they are built to the right standards. But secondary legislation may be needed to achieve this. With no organisation overseeing SuDs, opportunities are potentially being missed.
The vacuum created by a lack of flood expertise within local authorities could also affect this area, and Jones argues that a more joined up approach advocated by Pitt could lead to better outcomes.
“Rather than having several local authorities all doing individual schemes, you might have a greater impact if they joined together on one big scheme,” he says. “You might get a greater bang for your buck.”
Work around other “softer” natural flood defences – now coined as upland catchment management – has over the past few years also just started to gain traction. Typical examples include deliberately obstructing tributaries and streams with logs to slow flows, and a popular example is Pickering in the North York Moors which avoided flooding over Christmas 2015 thanks – it is claimed – to a £2M catchment management scheme.
But Dawkins argues: “Where it’s feasible we ought to do it, but it’s not something that could be applied across the vast swathes of the country – I am fully behind the approach where it is possible.”
He adds: “There’s a limited pot of money and the easy schemes have been done. The stuff we have now is quite technically challenging and the benefits are incremental.”
Technology-led solutions are also in their infancy. Available flood technology is pretty advanced, particularly if you look at countries like the Netherlands. However, as Flikweert says: “You can compare the Netherlands with the UK but it’s a difficult comparison. In the Netherlands it’s clearly essential. But every £1 spent on flood defences in the UK could be spent on the National Health Service.” As ever it is a matter of priorities.