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Viewpoint - Professor Richard Ashley

Lead author on the ICE's State of the Nation report, 'Flooding: Engineering Resilience' Professor Richard Ashley takes a transnational look at Flood Risk Management.

In the past 5 years I have been engaged firstly in a strong interest in flooding and climate change in the Foresight report, followed immediately by interest in drought problems in 2005 and 2006 for the House of Lords, followed once again by the current plethora of investigations into the floods of 2007 for which I had been advising the Pitt inquiry.

Floods and droughts must be seen as both sides of the same coin if truly effective responses to the extremes of climate change are to be delivered to make us fit for the future. This is flagged up in the recent Government water strategy for England where it is stated that climate change considerations need to be fully integrated into all water policy and management and that there needs to be an integrated approach to ensure ecosystem integrity. However, the integration between water resources and drainage systems still has a long way to go in both policy and practical delivery terms.

Despite this, Flood Risk Management (FRM) in the UK remains extremely complex. Not only are the arrangements across the four UK countries diverse and involve hundreds, if not thousands of individuals and agencies, but the baseline information as to how the organisations discharge their, usually non-statutory obligations, is often elusive.

Nonetheless the delivery of FRM in the UK is comparable with the situation and approaches taken elsewhere in the world although there are certain areas where international practice may be ahead of the UK, where for example, there is a single agency responsible for delivering the whole range of FRM, but there are also areas where the UK leads, such as in risk-based performance assessment.

In England responsibility for sustainable communities lies mainly with the department for Communities and Local Government rather than Defra, where the main FRM responsibilities are. Ofwat, having consulted on its’ sustainability duty, seems to have translated this into a requirement under the AMP5 business planning process, for companies to produce plans to control the carbon footprint of their operations and is also unwisely hellbent on promoting 'competition' which will make the integrated water management needed to tackle floods and droughts impossible. A problematic component of the new 'surface water management plans' which are to be the responsibility of local authorities in England is the place of sewer flood risk.

The recent Defra Making Space for Water pilots have revealed the limitations of the reporting of only historical sewer flooding incidents the (so-called) DG5 register with regard to future flood risk planning. Coupled with the likely limitations of the sewer network models, developed mainly to control pollution from combined sewer overflows over the past decade, the sewerage undertakers are faced with a difficult task to provide meaningful information required for these and the plethora of other plans proliferating in this area.

Each of these organisations still considers that the economic element of sustainability assessment prevails in any capital or operational investment. And despite its' recent appointment as overseer of FRM in England, a survey of the ICE Regional Directors and the House of Lords in 2006 question whether the EA can fulfil both an environmental protection role and a FRM role at the same time without conflict.

Although Defra’s Making Space for Water initiative is a visionary approach, it has moved away from an integrated water management stance to concentrate almost exclusively on the flood risk aspects of coastal flooding and integrated urban drainage in the now completed pilot studies.

In the future workplan there is no mention of water quality issues despite referring to the River Basin Management Planning (RBMP) process, nor to the opportunities for direct water use at source as a means of offsetting downstream flood risk. The English Government’s new water strategy, together with the EA’s water resources strategy do, however, recognise the opportunities that should be taken here.

In contrast, in Scotland, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has no role in FRM (only warning) and sustainability is part of the driver for and implementation of new flood risk management legislation to deliver both fair and equitable FRM. This will be the vehicle for delivering the Floods directive there and will place this within River Basin management planning, led by SEPA. In Wales, the Welsh assembly Government (WAG) also has a wide vision, although this does not show quite the same perspective linking sustainability to FRM. Nonetheless, moves here are taking place to make stormwater management more sustainable and deal with it closer to source, provided Ofwat allows Dwr Cymru Welsh Water (DCWW) to invest in developing best practice in this area.

Many English Government initiatives do not address the difficulties of delivering FRM in their vision; leaving this to the Regional Planning processes, as illustrated in the East of England draft Regional Plan and response thereto by the ICE and local planning processes, where there are major difficulties in having to reconcile conflicting policy demands especially for new houses, regeneration, environmental protection without building on greenfield land.

As an example, the review of strategic approaches to coastal flooding and coastal erosion management in England by Defra in 2006 was a review of responsibilities for these areas rather than a review of approaches taken making decisions about flood measures. Even good practice guidance from those who should know better such as the Town and Country Planning Association often barely addresses FRM as a major consideration.

Nevertheless Making Space for Water in England has moved the action from flood defence to flood risk management in which a portfolio approach is now required involving both structural and non-structural measures. Despite the inferences in the new PPS25 guidance document, SUDS are not the answer to future FRM. They are effective for smaller storms and may have a role in reducing local flooding from frequent events that may be impacting on vulnerable and high impact receptors.

There most beneficial use is in water quality enhancement. In Germany, an approach is being developed whereby SUDS are being coupled with exceedance measures (SUDS for exceedance). These are also being seen as a part of an urban environmental enhancement opportunity There is a requirement for more development work to be done in this area to develop a clearer understanding of the place of both SUDS and other non-structural measures in FRM. In this way the use of SUDS for integrated water management can be better defined.

But beyond this there is much emphasis now on the need to change behaviours (this is part of a wider need to change people’s environmental behaviours so that we can collectively successfully address climate change challenges in particular).

Yet all of the UK Government’s still seems to be wary of telling the public that they will remain at risk of flooding whatever measures are put in place. All of this, especially the focus on behavioural change has ‘located’ many aspects of FRM more in social science understanding. The most recent insights into the barriers to achieving this and to using social science research outputs to inform FM policy and actions are that engineers (e.g. in Defra, the EA etc.) commonly frame research questions and projects without involving social scientists at an early stage, therefore risking opportunities to frame projects more appropriately, especially when there are important social science methodologies and elements which could be utilised.

In the worst cases, amateur social science assumptions, understandings and/or methodologies are employed. This has important training implications for engineers leading multi-disciplinary teams, and particularly those both in commissioning and using the outputs from social science research. Not only is more knowledge of social science language, paradigms, methods and outputs required, but there needs to be a greater understanding of the when it is appropriate to bring professional social scientists into research, data gathering and/or policy decision making if we are to deliver truly sustainable and effective FRM.

An edited version of this article appeared in NCE this week.

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