The National Flood Resilience Review – does it live up to its name?

I felt a little underwhelmed after reading the Government’s ‘National Flood Resilience Review’, which was published on Thursday. National flood resilience is complicated and must consider not only how well communities are able to cope with extreme rainfall events but how quickly life can return to normal afterwards, what the impact is on businesses and whether the most vulnerable people receive the support they need.

Our nation cannot be truly resilient unless the environment is also able to cope, both with the impacts of flooding and the engineering we employ to manage it. There’s no inherent conflict there, the natural environment is one of the greatest assets we have in managing flood risk, but it does require a bit of careful planning.

The Review didn’t really delve into any of that but perhaps it never intended to. Instead it updated us on some important work the Met Office has been leading on showing that extreme flood events may occur with a 20-30% greater frequency than existing models predicted but that the communities at risk now will continue to be those at risk in the future. This modelling has recently been backed up by studies into Cumbrian lake sediments, which show that two in three of the biggest storms in the last 600 years occurred in the last two decades. This will come as no surprise to the people who live in flood prone areas such as Cumbria and while it highlights the importance of improving resilience, it doesn’t in itself help us to achieve it. Over the ten year period that the Review concerns itself with natural variability is expected to have a greater impact on annual rainfall patterns than climate change. When the Review talks about ‘long-term planning’ it is looking beyond 2021 so it makes little or no contribution to the debate about how we prepare and invest for long-term resilience in a changing climate.

Most of the Review is taken up explaining how the Government is working with the private sector to ensure that they have plans in place to ensure the resilience of key infrastructure. It isn’t always clear why the Government should need to invest so much time and effort encouraging the private sector to safeguard its own business-critical assets. The sums of money the sector has already identified to improve the flood resilience of its assets over the next five years (£900 million by Network Rail, £78 million by Highways England, £250 million by the electricity industry etc) are not insignificant so would Government effort be better directed looking at the plans for its own flood risk management budget and identifying where combining resources might provide better outcomes for people and the environment?

The Review reports on an exciting pilot project in Sheffield to explore innovative approaches to flood defence and urban development in cities. Apparently the project will unlock the economic, aesthetic and ecological value of the city’s water and will involve representatives from ‘the flooding and water industry, engineering, architecture, development, infrastructure, finance, technology and commerce’. This is an exciting project and hopefully won’t overlook the importance of also involving community and environment interests in its development. This isn’t new and a bit more detail is available in the Sheffield Green Commission’s final report ‘Sheffield’s Green Commitment‘ but it is reassuring that the Government will support its development and learn from its conclusions.

The final part of the Review looks at the Government’s ‘future investment strategy’ and appears to conclude that nothing needs to change. This is perhaps one of the most important areas that the Review could have commented on but it appears as something of an afterthought. The funding system, like the Review, continues to take us down a path of focusing on defences, rather than at measures to improve resilience and adaptation. Is there really no need to assess whether the current funding structure achieves the best outcome for all rather than the cheapest? This is a question that, at the very least, is worthy of more consideration than it receives here.

If we go back to the terms of reference for the Review that were published back in January, we are reminded that it was never intended to provide the comprehensive, long-term strategy for national flood resilience that we really need. So is this review inadequate or was it just given the wrong title? The EFRA Select Committee may be able to provide a more holistic review of our current state of readiness and priorities for change when it reports on its inquiry into future flooding later this year. You can read Blueprint’s submission to the inquiry here.

Simon Wightman, Land Use Policy Officer. The RSPB.