What is needed to tackle Flood Risk in the UK?

Posted: 15.11.2019

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Author: Liz Sharp, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning,

University of Sheffield



When even Boris Johnson interprets last week’s severe flooding as a probable consequence of climate change, it is a sign that everyone is recognising that the weather is becoming weird.  With the promise of more periods of intense rainfall in years to come, what do we need to do to protect ourselves more from flooding in the future?


One of Boris’s answers was to spend more money on flood defence.  While undoubtedly more money is needed, the extent to which it should solely be directed to flood defence is questionable.  Flood defence involves things like flood walls that protect particular communities against rising flood waters. As some residents from Doncaster argued in relation to the new upstream defences at Meadowhall, flood defence can just switch the flood from one place to another.  By channelling water downstream, they suggested, Meadowhall’s defences meant downstream Doncaster had a more severe flood. It is certainly true defending one place from a flood does shift the flood to another location.  Hence, while flood defences are important and useful for protecting the assets we value most, it is also crucial to think about on whom the flood costs will fall.


Whereas flood defence will only help particular communities, investments that reduce the extent of flooding by slowing the flow can help everyone downstream.  


Over the past ten years huge changes have been made in relation to the understanding and use of natural flood management.  Increasingly our uplands are being recognised as having an important function in holding the water back.  Drainage ditches and other features enabling agricultural use have been removed and replaced by small dams and other natural flood risk management measures to enrich our naturally wet upland ecosystems and to slow the flow.  As it happens, by doing so we are also increasing the extent of peatlands and hence helping carbon storage too. 


It is also important to slow the flow in our urban areas, in both public and private space.   Councils are increasingly recognising that they can use parts of parks, pavements or even current roadways can be partially repurposed to green areas that also hold water at times of flooding.  Of course, it means that land we currently use in one way must be partially or completely given up for other uses – so a football field might be sacrificed for occasional flood storage, or parking spots lost for a new raingarden.  We can also be supported to make private choices that help to slow the flow.  Is your roof water channelled into a rain-barrel, for example, and does this overflow into a wet part of your garden, or into the sewer?   Though no single householder can make a big difference to the total flow, all householders acting together can make a difference. 


Not all floods will be mitigated so it is also crucial that those at flood risk prepare and seek to protect themselves.  We often hear demand for Councils to supply sandbags at times of flooding, but sandbags are relatively ineffective compared to flood gates and other simple flood resilience measures that can be crucial in protecting homes from small floods. Careful interior design also reduces the harm caused by floods, by situating plug sockets halfway up the wall, for example, or ensuring floors are concrete or tiles and can be easily washed down (rather than fitted carpets or wood that will need to be thrown out).  People living in locations at risk of flooding should also sign up for flood warnings, and each family should have a flood plan, a clear idea about what needs to done if there is a flood warning and limited time available to protect your family and your possessions. 


One of the difficulties of making these changes happen is that the water organisations – Councils, the water companies and the Environment Agency - have been previously primarily focused on the engineering of effective water services.  The organisations are not focused on working closely with others to mobilise and coordinate action, and more experimentation and efforts are needed to explore how these processes can best be supported.  As a route to helping these processes, my team are currently undertaking research to look at how mobilisation in relation to water is organised. 


One of the big challenges for local authorities addressing flood risk is the pressure to release land for new homes.  Though Councils try to avoid providing land in flood vulnerable locations, sometimes these are the only spaces available. And perhaps what is needed is a change of attitude? It is perfectly possible to build in the flood plain as long as what is built is resilient to floods, for example, having less valuable ‘floodable’ space on a flood-vulnerable ground floor.  It is these different ways  of building that could enable  us to continue to develop and change while avoiding increases in flooding. 


All of this is of limited comfort to the individuals of Fishlake and other Yorkshire towns who will be visiting their flood ravaged homes this week.  Flood vulnerable locations are often occupied by less wealthy members of our society.  Evidence from Hull and other locations flooded in 2007 indicate that it will take many months if not years for people’s lives to return to normal, and that for some, the floods will take a significant toll on their mental as well as their physical health.  While it is undoubtedly true that the flood authorities cannot promise to protect everyone from flooding, the events of last week raise some important questions over whether and how we should be supporting slowing the flow and flood protection, particularly in neighbourhoods including many vulnerable people with limited resources.