Plain Dealing

Building for flood resilience

Author: Grace Newcombe   |  

Plain Dealing

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The UK is experiencing more extreme weather events including flooding and rising sea-levels. The planning system must absorb and adapt to new circumstances wrought by climate change, with flooding a particular area of concern. This is most clearly manifest at the local level, where multiple pressures arise from the twin challenges of increasing housing supply and mitigating against flood risk. As such, development on flood risk areas sits at the intersection of the housing and climate crises. Plain Dealing looks at the current policy landscape for flood resilience, measures the heated debate around the issue and puts forwards suggestions for a balanced approach to resilience and resistance when meeting housing demand.

Key points

Planning for climate change and flood resilience

In England, some 5m properties – 1 in 6 – are at risk of flooding. With the current housing pressures and mandated targets, the country is likely to see almost double the number of properties in Flood Zone 3 – an increase from 2.4m to 4.6m – over the next 50 years. With the planning reforms still currently paused, it is vital that a revamped system has climate change as its first legal and policy priority. Planning makes a major contribution to both mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the planning system has long had its faults and does not always work in the interest of best social and environmental value.

At the local level, as key decision-makers, how local government acts within the current system is as crucial to resilience as to how central government carries out reform. For councils at high risk of flooding, often on the east coast of England, there is little choice but to build on floodplains to meet housing demand under the current system. This is particularly acute in those high-risk districts where 10 percent of homes or more are already at risk of flooding. In the first nine months of 2021, these high-risk planning authorities approved 5,283 new dwellings on floodplains, with 4,255 planned in areas identified as highly likely to flood.

How UK flooding policy mitigates risk

National flooding strategy recognises that the tools needed to deliver resilience will vary from place to place and that the approach is best designed at a local level. Yet, the strategy overlooks the requirement of local authorities to absorb additional activity proposed without offering additional investments. With councils in England facing an overall funding gap of £8 billion by 2025, it is vital that any new activity arising from the strategy is resourced.

Attempting to mitigate and adapt to the effects of increased flooding combined with increased housing demand must traverse an uneven and inconsistent policy landscape. Complexity in flood risk and service management is borne from the multitude of bodies involved: the local authority responsible for housing; the county council (if it is a two-tier authority) responsible as the statutory consultee for surface water drainage; the EA responsible for flood risk; and a private water company responsible for drainage. And these roles change in an emergency, further complicating the system.

Taking action to enhance planning strategies and flood risk management

Resilience and adaptation need to be the priority both for the immediate and future flood risk. Governments, businesses, and society must embrace and invest in adaptation, rather than live with the costs of inaction. The planning reforms, and how funds from the 2021 Spending Review are allocated, will be tests for flood risk management.

Currently the country is in a period where focus is understandably on building and recharging the economy. Yet, equal focus must be placed on good adaptation, placemaking and ‘building back better’. There is a trade-off with investment in every aspect – projects, skills, capabilities – required for adaptation and resilience. Planning reforms should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen flood risk planning policy and to ‘Build Back Better’ but currently flood adaptation does not have a strong enough presence. If nothing changes then flood risk adaptation will remain fleeting and ineffective.

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Planning reforms

  • Floodplain development should be avoided wherever possible and should be accompanied by appropriate flood defences, constructed alongside new developments, where unavoidable.
  • Local authorities with planning teams should appoint a chief resilience officer who is:
    • Required to sit on local resilience forums.
    • To become a single point of contact for English local government districts on the issue in county/district areas, or in unitary authorities depending on governance systems.

Funding recommendations

  • Specific funding should be made available to establish a new cross departmental task force to look at flood-risk development. A new ministerial post, between Defra and DLUHC, should be set up to oversee and provide accountability for this task force.
    • This would include provision for:
      • engagement with, and capacity training for, local authority planning teams (particulalry chief resilience officers);
      • design and funding of graduate schemes for flood resilience professionals in planning, water management and other key disciplines;
      • Serving as a single point of contact for central government on the issue.
  • Money must be made available for upgrading and maintaining flood defences (overseen by task force).
    • a blended mix of revenue allocation via the Environment Agency to local authorities and to internal drainage boards, to undertake essential work on existing flood defences going forward. This may well involve a period of just a few years where we frontload a significant amount of public money to bring our assets up to a condition that is easier to manage than on a ‘little and often’ basis.
  • A future risk-based approach to development
    • The insurance industry should work with the government, local authorities, developers and other key stakeholders to help inform what measures might be needed in the future to help mitigate against climate change and ensure that homes are and remain insurable.

Research kindly sponsored by:

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