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Shortcomings in UK Government Review of Flooding

One of the most important decisions facing the new UK Government is how to implement the recommendations of the National Flood Resilience Review, which was scheduled to be published this week.

One of the most important decisions facing the new UK Government is how to implement the recommendations of the National Flood Resilience Review, which was scheduled to be published this week.

The Review was launched in December 2015 after the UK had been caught out again for the second time in three years by floods due to record winter rainfall.

The Review was being overseen by Oliver Letwin in the Cabinet Office, but he was one of the many casualties of last week's brutal re-shuffle by the new Prime Minister, Theresa May.

It would be difficult for the Government to delay publication significantly as one of its aims was to ensure that steps are taken before next winter to raise the level of protection, particularly for vital infrastructure, against flooding.

One of the reasons why the UK has not been adequately prepared is that the Government has severely under-estimated how often flooding could occur.

The 'National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies', updated in March 2015, indicates that the relative likelihood of inland flooding occurring in the next five years is between 1-in-20 and 1-in-200.

As the winters of 2013-14 and 2015-16 demonstrated, the probability is actually much higher, and rising. Climate change means that six of the UK's seven wettest years since records began in 1910 have occurred from 2000 onwards, during a period when we have experienced our eight warmest years.

Global warming means that the temperature of the lower atmosphere is increasing, which results in it being able to hold more water, hence leading to more intense downpours.

The 'UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017', published last week by the Committee on Climate Change, warned: "The impacts of flooding and coastal change in the UK are already significant and expected to increase as a result of climate change".

It noted that 2.7 million properties in the UK are at some risk of flooding, with surface water caused by heavy rainfall threatening the most homes and businesses.

However, Lord Krebs, who chairs the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, revealed at the report's launch in Parliament last week that the National Flood Resilience Review has not considered the threat of surface water flooding.

This is very worrying. Not only does surface water flooding threaten more properties in the UK than other forms of flooding, but it is less than 10 years since it was largely responsible for more than £3 billion in damage during summer 2007.

There was a more recent reminder of the potential dangers of heavy rainfall last month when parts of London were flooded on 23 June, including some polling stations for the referendum on whether to remain or leave the European Union.

As The Guardian exclusively revealed in April, London Underground has acknowledged that 57 Tube stations in the capital are vulnerable to surface water flooding, a legacy of Boris Johnson's chairmanship of Transport for London.

David Cameron's Government, particularly the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), faced strong criticism for its approach to managing flood risk.

Under the disastrous Owen Paterson, DEFRA neglected to take into account climate change when calculating future demand for insurance through its new Flood Re scheme.

But even more recently, its year-to-year spending on defences fluctuated markedly, with increased investment often occurring only after major flood events, and it also ignored key advice from the Committee on Climate Change.

In June 2015, the Committee recommended that "DEFRA should take steps to address the increasing number of homes and other properties expected to be at high flood risk in the coming decades, publishing a strategy within a year of this report", and revealed that more than 4500 properties are still being built each year in areas of medium or high flood risk.

But in its official response in October, the Government rejected the Committee's call, stating that such a strategy "would not be appropriate at this time", while acknowledging that current planning policy "does not rule out all new development in areas at high risk of flooding, which include parts of central London and cities such as Hull, if there are no suitable and reasonably available sites in areas with a lower probability of flooding and the development is made safe, appropriately flood resilient and resistant, without increasing flood risk elsewhere, and any residual risk can be safely managed".

If the new Government is to avoid a rise in flood risk putting the UK's economy under even greater strain over the next few years as it tries to negotiate an exit from the European Union, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet will need to heed the advice of experts about the impacts of climate change on Britain.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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