“Five feet high and rising…” Sixty years may have passed since Johnny Cash’s haunting song about fleeing his childhood home during the great Ohio River flood of 1937, yet his theme remains hugely relevant today. With six of the wettest years on record having occurred since 1998, concerns grow about the impacts of climate change on the UK’s susceptibility to flooding. A new research paper, published earlier this month by Fathom, reinforces these concerns.
After looking at historic, current and future forecasts across the UK, the researchers concluded that the UK will only avoid a major increase in climate change related flood risk if all COP 26 and net zero emission reduction pledges are met in full. Even if the UK meets these pledges, significantly increased flooding can still be expected. While some areas will be largely unaffected, there are several foreseeable hotspots.
Flooding ruins lives and livelihoods. In pure economic terms, Fathom’s report suggests that the annual cost of flood damage to the UK’s economy, currently around £700M according to the Association of British Insurers, could increase by more than 20% over the next century. What is perhaps less well understood is the “shadow” effect of flood risk. Even when a major event is avoided, the effects of the risk alone can be devastating, deterring much needed investment in affected communities.
Improved understanding of our evolving flood risk landscape is clearly welcome, as it enables us to make informed investment decisions. This is however, only one piece of the puzzle. As Fathom’s research warns, the UK is poorly adapted to its existing flood risks, let alone the further increases that climate change will bring. Many of the places at risk of future flooding are already at risk. Their report concludes that “strengthening flood management at already at-risk areas is the best thing we can do to prepare for climate change”. Are we preparing?
As a consenting lawyer specialising in flood defence, it is clear to me that organisations tasked with tackling flooding – usually the Environment Agency or local authorities – work tirelessly at this. Their efforts range from long, overnight shifts helping to physically deploy primary defences, to completing major new projects, like tidal barriers.
Yet when it comes to securing consents for new defences the process can be unnecessarily complex, costly and slow. The legal and policy frameworks developed in recent years to support efficient and economic delivery of UK infrastructure have largely overlooked this important area.
The Planning Act 2008, introduced to accelerate nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), makes no mention of new flood defences – despite listing 18 different categories of NSIP. As a result, important schemes designed to help us prepare for and adapt to climate change do not benefit from this specialist regime which has come to dominate UK infrastructure planning. To participate, flood defence schemes must complete the additional step of applying for a Ministerial Direction, as the Environment Agency did in June 2021 for its River Thames Flood Alleviation Scheme. Even if successful, this does not unlock the full benefits of the NSIP regime.
Other specialist consenting mechanisms can be employed. For instance, the Environment Agency has recently promoted successive Orders under the Transport and Works Act 1992 (TWA) to deliver its Ipswich, Boston and Bridgwater tidal barriers. The TWA regime generally works well but it does not benefit from the same ministerial commitment to prompt decision making – a three month statutory timescale applies – as the NSIP regime. It took two years to secure ministerial approval of the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier Order, a scheme that will greatly reduce the flood risk to over 13,000 homes and businesses in Bridgwater. There is also uncertainty and a reluctance to allow marine licencing to be assimilated with TWA applications, as is routine with NSIPs. This leads to a clunky interface between the terrestrial and marine consents that flood defences inevitably require.
The policy framework for flood defences is also fragmented, often focusing on restricting developments within flood plains rather than building new flood defences. The sector does not benefit from a bespoke National Policy Statement (NPS). These apply to NSIPs and underpin the Planning Act 2008 regime. They can be hugely important, establishing the need for infrastructure and providing crucial guidance on scheme appraisal – for instance how to account for climate change, to assess and mitigate environmental effects or quantify benefits.
New flood defences are generally popular yet the technical evidence can be complex. Explaining how a scheme will affect the flow of water can be challenging – especially if the science appears counter intuitive. Describing the relative annual exceedance probability of a flood event may never compare to Cash’s “how high’s the water, papa?” but a clear policy framework which explains flooding and the ways of effectively addressing it in relatable terms would really help.
As government looks to further planning reforms to progress critical sectors like renewable energy, flood defences should also be considered. These may not be commercial assets, generating or transporting resources like offshore windfarms or ports. However, they are critical if we are to adapt to climate change and rising sea levels and bring social and economic benefits to communities who desperately need them.
- Sarah Clark is a partner at law firm BDP Pitmans
Like what you’ve read? To receive New Civil Engineer’s daily and weekly newsletters click here.