This is starting to feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Two years ago, the UK experienced horrendous floods during its wettest winter ever. Back then, David Cameron charged Oliver Letwin with reviewing our flood defences. But his report was never published.
Two years on, and the Met Office have just confirmed that December 2015 was the wettest month on record, ever. Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank broke new rainfall records and have devastated the North of England and Scotland with floods. And David Cameron has… ordered another flooding review, led by Oliver Letwin.
This time, if the Government’s Flood Resilience Review is to be at all meaningful, it needs to tackle four crucial issues: climate change, land management, budgets and governance.
1. Climate change and increasing flood risk
During the floods, politicians have kept expressing shock at ‘unprecedented’ rainfall levels. Unprecedented, yes, but not unpredictable: for the past two decades, scientists have been warning the British government that climate change is likely to lead to worsening downpours.
The Environment Agency tries to factor in climate change to its flood plans, but it’s looking increasingly like they’ve underestimated the risks. Flood defences installed in Keswick just three years ago were overwhelmed in December by the sheer quantities of rain; every river in Lancashire exceeded record levels last month. Environment Secretary Liz Truss has conceded that the Government’s flood modelling may be out of date, stating: “in the light of this extreme weather, we must look at that modelling and ensure that it is fit for purpose for future decisions.”
Fundamentally, the Government’s flood defence plans are all predicated on 2 degrees of global warming. But the pledges made at the Paris climate talks still leave the world on course for 3 degrees. It’s critical we do much, much more to cut emissions and avoid a world of runaway climate change. But it’s time the government admitted what the impacts will be on Britain of our present emissions pathway.
The Environment Agency advised in 2014 that to prepare the UK for flooding under a high–emissions climate change scenario would require an extra £300million between then and 2021. But the Government has ignored this, deciding to cross its fingers and prepare for the cheaper, medium–emissions scenario. It’s a bit like going for a skiing holiday in the Himalayas but only taking out standard insurance cover.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), meanwhile, have already warned the Government what 4 degrees of global warming will mean for the UK’s flood defences. It isn’t pretty. They suggest that hundreds of kilometres of sea defences will fail if this comes to pass, as rising seas undermine their foundations.
Local authorities are also meant to take climate change into account when dealing with planning applications – but it’s emerged that the Government has been issuing them with out–of–date climate change advice that could greatly underestimate the risks. The latest Defra research concluded that for Cumbria and Lancashire, planners should factor in an increase in river flood flows of up to 40% due to climate change. Yet the current official advice, based on old figures, assumes an increase of only 10% in river flood flows across the whole country. Why haven’t the higher, more recent figures been applied?
Why, too, is London preparing for a much higher level of climate change than the rest of the country? The Government’s Thames 2100 project prepares the capital for an ‘H++’ climate change scenario, in which sea levels rise by 2 metres (in fact this is simply business–as–usual if emissions keep rising). Yet as the Town & Country Planning Association points out, London is the only place in the UK preparing for this eventuality. Meanwhile, Local Authority budgets are being slashed massively, and the Coalition Government removed the duty for councils to prepare climate adaptation reports in 2010. We’re gold–plating protection for the City of London while the rest of the country is forced to swim.
In short: the Flood Resilience Review needs to ensure the whole country is being prepared for much worse climate change impacts. You might call it a one–nation approach to flood protection.
2. Land management and rewilding
Worsening flooding means we’re going to need stronger defences in places where people already live. But we also need to do far more to stop floods where they start – upstream, not just in floodplains. And that means rethinking how water moves through our landscapes – working with nature, not against it: more trees in the uplands to absorb heavy rains; letting rivers meander, rather than culverting them; reintroducing beavers. It’s a set of ideas that have been given huge traction recently by George Monbiot and the new charity Rewilding Britain.
Specifically, here are four things that the UK Government should be enabling through its Floods Review to boost our natural flood defences:
- Push for reform of the outrageous Common Agricultural Policy rules that drive upland deforestation – which pay farmers to remove ‘permanent ineligible features’, i.e. trees, from their land.
- Instead, incentivise farmers and landowners to reforest hills, and insist on careful soil conservation measures like no–till farming to stop so much silt being washed into rivers.
- Stop the burning of peat soils and draining of blanket bogs – this is mostly done to clear uplands for grouse moors, but is also unaccountably practised in some national parks.
- Accelerate the licensing of beavers, which are slowly making a comeback in the UK – there’s evidence that beavers’ dams and the habitats they create can slow water–flow and reduce flooding downstream.
And when it comes to better land management, we simply have to stop building homes in floodplains – the Environment Agency must be given a right of veto over any development it objects to in floodrisk areas. Too often, its advice is still ignored.
With climate change pushing up flood risk it’s clear that the government aren’t investing enough in measures to protect people. The Government keeps repeating that it is spending £2.3bn on fresh defences, but still hasn’t said what it will spend to maintain our existing ones – let alone spend the extra £300million the Environment Agency say is needed to prepare for a high climate change scenario. A review that leaves investment levels unchanged won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.
But the Government also needs to cut what it spends on damaging activities that increase flood risk. So, it should stop subsidising the fossil fuels driving climate change – such as tax breaks for oil and gas companies and money to keep old coal power stations running. And it must stop farm payments for practices that drive up flood risk and instead incentivise tree–planting and ecosystem restoration.
We need to better manage the way water passes through our landscapes, from source to sea. Currently, there is a mish–mash of different organisations with differing priorities. The obscure Internal Drainage Boards, for example, appear only too keen to dredge and channel floodwaters off inland areas and send them down to towns and cities. A different set of bodies administer coastal defences. And no–one seems to be looking at upland management in the round.
So the Flood Resilience Review should reconsider how we more naturally govern the flow of water across whole catchments – so that when, for example, an upland landowner cuts down a watershed forest, people living downstream get to have a say on the implications for them. This would mean a more inclusive process, involving more people taking an interest in how we become more resilient as a country. It would also mean being more transparent, opening up public datasets on flood risk, climate impacts and land ownership currently locked behind licenses and cloaked by Whitehall’s secrecy.
That’s our challenge for David Cameron, Oliver Letwin and the government’s Flood Resilience Review: address the systemic issues driving up flood risk in the UK – climate change, land mis–management, a lack of investment and poor governance. Rise to the challenge, and Britain will become more resilient, more prosperous and will be left with a richer environment. Duck the challenge, and we’ll be seeing many more floods like the ones we’ve just experienced.