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Tackling flooding through long-term planning

Emilia Plotka

Architectural adaption and government strategy will be essential to tackling flooding, argues an RIBA report on the future of insurance

Over the past few years the UK has been hit hard by a succession of severe winter and summer storm, and prolonged periods of rain, causing coastal damage and widespread flooding, most recently last winter when parts of the country were left flooded for many months.  Despite considerable investment in flood defences since 2007, the effect on individuals, communities, businesses and infrastructure over the winter of 2013/4 were considerable. Clean-up costs alone were £1bn, small businesses lost an estimated £830m, and insurers paid out over £1.5bn.

And things are likely to get worse. Some estimates see the cost of flood damage in the UK rising fivefold by 2050, to £23bn a year. Today, nearly one in six properties are at risk of flooding in the UK, and this is likely to increase. The combination of increasingly frequent severe weather and a rise in the number of homes built in areas deemed high risk by the Environment Agency is putting the UK’s flood resilience to the test.

Despite acknowledging these trends, government has not acted. Investment in flood risk management in the UK has been dramatically cut back. Spending on flood defences between 2011 and 2015 will be nearly £250m lower than in 2007 to 2011. As a result, the UK’s approach to managing flooding is best described as short-term and half-hearted.  Without fundamental change, there are concerns that this could overwhelm the government’s flood reinsurance model (Flood Re) to promote the flood insurance for households via government reinsurance of insurers. If the next government is serious about tackling flooding and keeping insurance for homes and businesses affordable, it needs to stop thinking in five year cycles and draw up a long-term plan.

The RIBA believes the government needs to look beyond just building homes and trying to protect them later. Flood prevention measures like water sensitive architecture and green infrastructure should become an integral part of our homes and cities. The current approach is clearly not sustainable. The UK underspend on flooding is £580m behind the identified need and this figure will likely rise in future spending reviews.  We need a new approach that encapsulates three main principles.

First, the government needs to adopt a joined-up approach to development in high-risk areas. Pressure for new housing is leading to a new legacy of flood-prone homes being created at a pace that will outstrip the capacity of Flood Re to insure them. In many cases local authorities will not be able to withhold planning permission for schemes that are not considered themselves to be in areas at risk to flooding, but which will increase that risk if built. This loophole causes means are granted planning permission, despite causing flood risk for their occupants. According to the RIBA, the National Planning Practice Guidance on Flood Risk and Coastal Change should be amended to enable local authorities to reject planning applications that will increase flood risk.

Pressure for new housing is leading to a new legacy of flood-prone homes being created at a pace that will outstrip the capacity of Flood Re to insure them

Secondly, where the decision is made to build in areas at risk of flooding, we need to think about how risks can be managed. This doesn’t mean erecting huge flood barriers everywhere. Rather, we need developers, planners and architects to consider suitable adaptation measures, such as simple architectural interventions like moving wiring higher up walls or installing flood protection doors. And we know that in some cases innovative design can be used to great effect to allow people to live with flooding. To ensure new development in high flood risk areas meet these standards, local authorities should require planning applications to carry detailed design briefs to ensure that developments will prevent and withstand flooding, which should be scrutinised by design review panels.

Finally, with limited funds, the government will have to think more strategically about how it can manage flood risk in a way that goes beyond on a case-by-case basis. The architecture, construction and landscape industry is united in the belief that investing in large-scale water sensitive urban design (WSUD) and green infrastructure is a smarter investment route to protecting Britain from flooding. We need to look beyond the idea that a pipe in the ground is always the best option for getting rid of rainwater. For this we need to look to other countries for inspiration.

Countries where extreme weather is already a way of life – like Australia, Singapore and New Zealand – have already incorporated WSUD into many of their cities’ buildings and public spaces. This helps take the pressure off existing infrastructure by reducing the amount of water entering sewers. Extra water storage in homes and offices also reduces demand at times of shortage, and allows for better management when flash flooding is a risk. The UK should start to examine how best to adapt such measures to our needs. The RIBA believes that the UK should start to work towards a multi-agency land management strategy that prevents flooding from being exacerbated by harmful patterns of building and farming.  

The next government should reassess planning and building design practices that break the process of creating new homes that either lack the right design and infrastructure to withstand flooding damage or are built in unacceptable locations. Unless this is addressed and sustainable planning is placed at the heart of the debate, there is the danger that the Flood Re levy will do little to protect communities and businesses in the long term, and the flood insurance model will become unsustainable.

Emilia Plotka is RIBA policy officer

This article will be published in Future Property Now, available from 19 February


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