Wake up and smell the floodwater

By Paddy Kent

With a little over three months until the COP26 in Glasgow, London was battered by torrential rain on Sunday, leading to flash flooding in parts of the capital, the media has once again picked up on discussion of climate change producing more turbulent weather and rising sea levels.

Quickly in response, the Government has announced a cure – the Environment Agency will spend £5.2bn on reducing flooding in England over the next six years to 2027.

They have been spending around £300m a year on capital works in the last few years, so this is a substantial increase. But despite the huge budget, these works will protect only 336,000 properties, around 1.5% of England’s housing stock. Reports (including one of Environment Agency’s own) states that over 5 million homes in England are at risk of flooding, so suddenly those 336,000 homes look like just a drop in the ocean.

There’s also a new focus on prevention rather than cure, with new guidance to deter the building of new homes in areas that flood. Of course, the planning system already has procedures and policies in place to handle this. But the Environment Agency’s own press release seems to have highlighted that 866 homes were awarded planning permission despite the organisation objecting on the grounds of flood risk. Despite the rigorous procedures and policies, and that these 866 homes represent only about 0.3% of all homes given planning permission in a typical year, that hasn’t stopped the Daily Mail’s headline misrepresenting the situation (‘Developers will be banned on land at risk from flooding………..’). This makes it seem like there’s currently a free for all on building in flood zones and that is incredibly far from the truth.

The City of London is currently consulting about its plans to raise ground level by the river by 1m to allow for anticipated river level rises by 2100. It is not planning to actually facilitate an expensive new river wall – instead it hopes to rely on buildings that are redeveloped in the decades to come providing it for them, piece by piece. This kind of long-termist and strategic thinking also shows that new guidance from central Government to local authorities on house building in flood zones is fairly unnecessary – councils are already proactively taking steps to manage development in areas susceptible to flooding themselves.