Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.
If it’s beginning to look a lot like pre-Christmas, another winter tradition we can add to the mix alongside seasonal panto is the theatrics of ministers and their shadows for flood drama.
The scene is set, as they come literally wading into camera view in their wellies. Either to talk of all that is being done to offer comfort and respite to some poor, blighted and inundated community or all that ought to happen but which is shamefully being neglected.
And the standard blame game will begin over confused responsibility between the various actors, Defra, the Environment Agency, local councils, drainage boards and all the rest.
For fans of the genre, the grandstanding of 2014 Somerset Levels and Moors in which Ian Liddell Grainger, the local MP, variously labelled Environment Agency (EA) bosses as ‘bush hookers’ and its then chairman Lord Chris Smith a ‘git’. Amid the Churchillian blitz as the crisis refused to abate and a blank cheque approach from David Cameron, communities secretary Eric Pickles moved in to overhaul Defra as flood tsar.
This led to complaints from the environment secretary to the Prime Minister of the communities secretary ‘grandstanding’ – and a further mullering from Pickles of the EA for its poor advice and failure to dredge the area.
These floods exposed the lack of alignment within central government, let alone how it works with local partners in dealing with flood crises. And with the UK set to experience more extreme weather events, Alok Sharma might not be alone in cabinet ministers crying a river over the coming years.
As a nation we must dramatically improve how we cope with the greater prevalence of such incidents. But we can possibly start by considering why we continue to build so many new homes in such high-risk flood areas.
As it stands, some five million homes, roughly one-in-six are at risk of flooding. And with current housing pressures and mandated targets, the country is likely to see the number of properties in Flood Zone 3 areas double from 2.4 million to 4.6 million over the next 50 years.
For councils at high risk of flooding often on the east coast of England, there is little choice but to build on floodplains to meet housing demand under the current system. The number of homes built on land at the highest risk of flooding increased from 9,500 in 2013 to 20,000 in 2017/18. And the situation is most acute in high-risk district council areas where ten per cent or more of land is at risk of flooding.
So far this year, these high-risk planning authorities have greenlighted 5,283 new dwellings on floodplains, with 4,225 planned in areas identified as highly likely to flood.
Our planning system is simply going to have to learn to absorb and adapt to the new circumstances wrought by climate change. As such, development in areas at risk of flooding sits at the intersection of the housing and climate crises.
The planning system as constituted in the 2021 National Planning Policy Framework has failed to address the seriousness of the climate emergency. By downgrading planning’s contribution to combating climate change we have failed to bind the planning system to the UK’s climate policy.
The Planning for the Future White Paper contains precious little detail, which makes one nervous about the provisions of the housing bill when it emerges. And at local level, few councils – despite their declared climate emergencies – can prove their planning policies are designed to secure their area’s contribution to attaining net zero. In seeking to address this, Localis has issued a report this week entitled ‘Plain dealing: building for flood resilience’.
In it we advise that as part of the planning reforms, floodplain development should be avoided wherever possible. If unavoidable, developments must be accompanied with appropriate flood defences and resilience measures.
To bring unity of purpose to a fragmented system, we call for the creation of a new cross-departmental task force for flood-risk development, overseen by a new ministerial post between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
Funding for upgrading and maintaining flood defences is essential to the safety of communities at flood risk. The recent Spending Review did good in reaffirming the doubling of investments in the FCERM programme to £5.2bn with an additional £27m to support flooding incident and emergency response and an extra £22m each year for the maintenance of flood defences.
We also need effective collaboration between the public, private and civil society with the aim of reinvigorating and re-incentivising flood insurance schemes and partnerships for future mitigation against climate change. Under these conditions, as the old TV advert had it, we won’t make a drama out of a crisis.