Published on February 26th, 2014 | by Special Guest0
Flooding and the Absence of Accountability
John Lawrence, a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Environmental Management, discusses the lack of risk management where flooding is concerned, and suggests the short term interests of several parties have contributed to poor flood management. Read his insights into the current flood crises and what he feels can be done to avoid repetition in the future.
Flooding: The Need for Effective Government, Public Bodies, and Integrated Accountability and Transparency
With a background of over 35 years experience in managing complex aspects of both water and environmental management issues, I have been following with concern the debate about the recent appalling flooding issues that have rightly been the cause of great distress in local communities.
One reason for the flood crisis is a lack of transparency and honesty surrounding not only the historic, geographic, and engineering facts, but also the issues that surround short term budgeting ,the PR spin, and short term political interests, that tend to support expedience rather than effective strategic decision making. These factors have clouded decisions that should have been taken based on sound risk management techniques before these events occurred.
The Facts About Flooding, Rivers, and Flood Management
- Rain periods have become more intense. The overall rainfall may not have increased
- Rivers cannot always have the capacity that intense or prolonged rainfall demands .That is why effective flood plains must be protected and properly managed. A clear land use policy is essential. This has been singularly lacking in public policy
- Fully viable tidal defences in some areas will be uneconomic, but adequate compensation to property owners must be properly factored into decisions about whether to repair tidal defences and improve them.
- River dredging, although essential on a regular basis in some local areas, will not solve the fundamental problem of flood capacity. Increasing dredging will also risk moving the flooding downstream in many localities. A mixture of dredging, management of flood plains and effective, but costly flood relief channels will be part of a more complex mix of required solutions.
Flood Prevention and Politics
- The economics of flooding prevention are out of date and driven by short term political expediency. The Environment Agency has been the victim of Treasury rules.
- Local authorities still wrongly allow building in the flood plain on a regular basis. This removes capacity for natural flooding and is responsible for thousands of homes being at very high risk of flooding. This situation has been with us for the last 30 years, but now it is a big issue, compounded by artificial central government housing “targets” and current green belt policy.
- Housing developers will always be attracted by easy development options. Even when local authorities refuse such planning applications they are too often overruled by planning inspectors. As a result we now see homes flooded by rising groundwater as well as surface flood waters. Serious attention must be given to proper planning of effective flood management before any consent is given in future to housing in a flood plain, if indeed any permission is given in future.
- The recent suggestion that insurance companies may refuse to insure newly built houses in a high risk flood plain may at last bring some much needed change in policy.
- Riparian owner responsibilities overall need better control. This used to be done by effective control by both river inspectors and local authority officials. I suspect that both have been made ineffective by irrelevant restructuring of regulatory organisations over many years, with a loss of front line staff, coupled with disinterest from local authorities in keeping urban ditches and streams free of rubbish. The sight of supermarket trolleys and unwanted items in urban ditches is an unfortunate common sight in too many towns.
Flooding and the Environment
- Farming methods that include mechanised hedge cutting often just block any adjacent ditches with debris in rural areas and can cause flooding. Many ditches on farmland have been ploughed in to gain productivity. Farming practices should be reviewed and regulated to minimise flood run off as part of an overall flood risk management strategy.
- Public safety must always take priority over wildlife niceties. European Directives are but part of an important set of policy criteria. They cannot be the only determining feature of policy making and risk management where flooding is concerned. Other countries would have ignored some directives in some areas quietly on the grounds of practicality, priority, benefit and risk based on wider competing needs rather than one single criteria that took no account of local factors such as risk to life and the local economy.
Flooding, Infrastructure and Planning Failures
- The increase in hard surface run off areas is partly due to the clamour for cheap, profitable high density new housing in many areas. Permeable surfaces are being lost. Infrastructure issues are rarely properly assessed or managed and the whole strategy surrounding developer contributions to adequately address these areas needs a radical overhaul.
- Foul water drains are often not adequately protected from the ingress of flooding from general surface water and ground water and this causes foul sewage to flood in conditions where the capacity of the sewer is just not able to cope with the unrealistic demand.
- OfW AT must take some responsibility for ensuring that long term remedies for sewer flooding and sewer capacity are dealt with by the water industry and that investment funding is in place. Innovative change must not be stifled by poor or unimaginative regulation.
Approaches for a Viable Long Term Solution to Flooding
- Unless or until there is a viable and effective system for a multi organisational strategy, supported by clear and unambiguous public policy led by senior politicians, who are prepared to do some long term planning, nothing will change. Unfortunately this does not fit the timescale between elections that all too often drives any planning at a high level.
- The expertise in environmental management that should be vested in the Environment Agency must be allowed to veto planning applications in the flood plain rather than just be a consultee. Leaving it to local authorities has proved to be a mistake
- Overall, what we have seen is both the debate and normal day to day actions being plagued by too many short term vested interests, short term political responses and little joined up accountability. Government departments must be fully accountable for working effectively together and delivering effective long term improvements, not just in an emergency situation.
Is there a lack of accountability, transparency and self interest which has caused the current flood crisis, or do you feel there is something else at the heart of the issue? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Photo credit: Endopack
About the Author
John Lawrence has 35 years experience of managing complex water and environmental issues and is a a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Environmental Management(CIWEM).