• 14 October 2020

Turning the tide: flood resilience and the climate emergency

Flood management expert, Shirel Stedman, explains how targeted investment in flood defences and natural flood solutions can help protect UK communities.

With major flood events expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades due to the climate emergency, the government has boosted funding for UK flood defences to £5.2bn. It is hoped that this major investment will ensure that 336,000 properties across the nation are better protected from flooding by 2027. Shirel Stedman, Waterman’s Director of Water and the Chair of DEFRA’s Regional Flood Coast Committee, said: “I was delighted to see the government double their flood defence investment, which I am sure will be welcomed by communities across the UK. Going forward, I would like to see a continuous policy review process regarding flood prevention. Our climate is constantly changing so we need to be agile in our approach and this is ultimately driven by policy.”

The increased investment in flood defences, together with a £40m pledge for tree planting at a rate of 30,000 hectares a year, forms the government’s long-term plan to tackle the risk of river flooding and coastal erosion as they also look to bolster the UK’s dwindling woodland. Shirel commented: “The real value of natural features-based solutions is that they act as carbon stores at the same time as enhancing the environment. They provide a vital natural service by intercepting precipitation, slowing its release to water courses, drainage and neighbouring sites to reduce the likelihood and severity of local flooding. Planting trees and restoring woodland, wetlands, peatlands and natural habitats can increase the amount of carbon stored in the natural environment. This could reduce the severity of the climate emergency and decrease the risk of flooding to communities. Nature-based solutions are also beneficial for local communities, providing opportunities for flood groups and catchment partnerships to become actively involved in how flood resilience is achieved in their local areas. This can result in better solutions which meet local needs, boost wellbeing and reduce the mental stress that can be associated with living with flood risk.”

As the government looks to address the affordable housing shortage in the UK through a £12bn affordable homes programme, planning reforms are also scheduled to help fast-track other types of development, including private house building. Shirel believes that our industry needs to rise to the challenge and pull together to make sure these developments directly respond to the climate emergency: “Looking ahead at the next 50 years, we need to ensure our developments and infrastructure can combat future flooding. Designs need to actively address the changes we know are heading our way. Our industry needs to stay agile to the latest climate science, growth projections, and other changes to our local environments, shaping developments to suit all these things.”

With the major rainfall and flooding events seen during storms Ciara and Dennis set to increase in frequency over the coming years, Shirel discussed what needs to be done to protect our communities: “In some places, the scale and pace of future flooding will be very significant indeed. Communities, planners and land managers need to make the best of land use and design choices for development and infrastructure to manage the effects of flooding. This includes making space for water to manage risk and support wider environmental benefits on new developments as we also look to protect those areas already at risk. We need a joined-up approach to dealing with the climate emergency. To begin with, we need to acknowledge the scale of the impact humans have made, then we need to reduce further damage and look to how we can help reverse the situation while working to live with more unpredictable weather events.”

Highlighting an example of how flood resilience schemes can have a major positive impact, Shirel pointed to the work that has been done in south east of England in the Thames Estuary: “The Thames Estuary 2100 is a world-class system of defences which provides protection to 1.3 million people and £275 bn of property and infrastructure from tidal flooding. The climate emergency, the region’s ageing defences, continued population and development growth and other pressures mean the risk of tidal flooding is increasing over time. The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan, approved by government in 2012, was developed to provide strategic direction for managing flood risk to the end of the century. The plan has climate change at its core and takes an adaptive pathway approach, with options for managing future tidal flood risk being continuously reviewed and revised in line with how the estuary is changing over time. It sets out a range of options for managing differing amounts of sea-level rise, river flows and increasing risk of storm surges. The first full review of the plan is taking place this year and will consider how the climate, environment and socio-economic conditions in the estuary have changed and are expected to change in the future.”

Applying an adaptive approach to the protection of the whole of the UK from flooding, up to the year 2100, the Environment Agency’s (EA’s) ‘National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England’ was presented to parliament in July 2020. The Strategy sets out how the EA will manage the risks and consequences of flooding from rivers, the sea, groundwater, reservoirs, watercourses, surface water, sewers and coastal erosion. Shirel said: “This new strategy will underpin the development industry’s approach to flood mitigation over the coming decades. I welcome the inclusive, collaborative approach the EA has taken throughout the process and I am pleased to see that they will carry this through to the Strategy’s implementation and ongoing monitoring processes. The EA, risk management authorities, communities, developers, engineers, businesses, farmers, land managers and infrastructure providers can all work together to help the UK adapt to future flooding and become more resilient to the changes in our climate already starting to have an impact on our daily lives.”

If you are interested in discussing flood risk, mitigation measures and natural features-based solutions, please contact Shirel Stedman.

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