Ben Obese-Jecty is the prospective Parliamentary candidate for Huntingdon.
This winter the spectre of flooding has once again become a critical issue across many areas of the country. With flooding becoming more frequent, properties that previously flooded once in a generation, or have never before, flood whenever water levels rise.
There is much that can be done pre-emptively to reduce the impact felt so devastatingly by communities and businesses whose homes and livelihoods are left ruined once the flood waters recede.
Over the course of this winter, following storms Babet and Henk, I have spent time speaking to many of the local flood groups, agencies, and affected residents in Huntingdon who are working hard to mitigate the danger of flooding in the region.
Local flood groups, staffed by residents, are a good first line of defence; all too often, however, they are also the last. They rely upon their own initiative, with self-taught expertise that varies from group to group: shouldering the responsibility for alerting the authorities of rising water levels, being the first to raise the alarm to nearby homeowners, and ensuring vulnerable residents are moved to safety or at least prepared for the worst.
The issue is exacerbated by the variety of solutions required to combat the rising waters. Across the many villages I have visited in Huntingdonshire I am yet to see two properties which use the same combination of flood prevention measures. Much of residents’ experience as to which solution works best is the result of hard-learned lessons and processes of trial-and-error.
This highlights just how complex the issue is. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, each is bespoke with a dependency upon multiple factors.
Watercourse maintenance is a “riparian responsibility” set in common law dating back to the Tudor period. Riparian responsibilities fall upon anyone who owns or tenants land adjacent to a watercourse, with the centreline of the watercourse denoting the boundary. That responsibility entails receiving the flow of water from upstream and ensuring the free flow of that water downstream.
In practice this means responsibility for removing vegetation from riverbanks to aid the flow of water and to ensure no other obstructions are in place. Clear enough. The feasibility of actually this along the length of a watercourse is less clear, particularly with regard the build-up of obstructions, natural or otherwise, within the water itself.
Cambridgeshire alone has 8,000 miles of watercourses; the task of providing oversight to the manual works required is at best enormous and at worst unfeasible.
These responsibilities are split between Cambridgeshire Lead Local Flood Authority, Anglian Water, Cambridgeshire Highways, National Highways, Internal Drainage Boards and the Environment Agency, not to mention District Councils as part of Cambridgshire’s Local Resilience Forum.
As we can see, the management of our watercourses is therefore a frustratingly kafka-esque labyrinth of common law, convention, legal responsibility, and good manners that relies upon all stakeholders to be appropriately well-informed: a situation that clearly isn’t always the case.
And whilst the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 outlines the responsibilities of agencies within flood risk management, it doesn’t cover the maintenance of watercourses.
In response to the recent flooding Labour have already, somewhat cynically, grasped the nettle pledging to establish a Flood Resilience Taskforce. Whilst this may sound hugely promising to those whose lives are too often afflicted by the issue, the proposal itself offers little more than the existing framework with a shiny new logo.
Labour plan to implement a top-down overhaul of “local resilience forums” and identification of vulnerable areas. Nowhere does it mention that they will make extra funding available. At a local level the plans for what needs to be done are well-documented, it is the ability to implement these plans that prevents it.
The Government have already committed to spend £5.2bn in England by 2027 to prevent flooding; there is clearly funding available. Yet much of it appears to be opaque and inaccessible to the groups who know best how it should be spent.
We must take a collegiate approach to distributing this funding based on analysis and research, not allocated by funding formulae which fail to take the unique foibles of each area’s requirements into account. Rather than provide a high-level framework with yet more layers of bureaucracy for volunteers to navigate, as Labour have suggested, we need to ensure we have holistic solutions in place.
As our weather becomes ever more unpredictable and extreme, coupled with greater development near to vulnerable areas that could exacerbate the issue, it is vital that we understand how this multi-agency approach can be better integrated. We need to establish a strategic approach to multi-agency interoperability, and remove the burden from volunteers who endeavour to stop their communities from flooding but are met with obstructions and frustrations in applying for the necessary funding or grants.
Our current system is dependent first and foremost on self-help, with the onus on residents, landowners, and flood groups to conduct the work to maintain our watercourses and take the appropriate Property Flood Resilience measures. At a local, tactical level, it is vital that we bring these stakeholders together in order to provide a collective view of what is needed.
Waiting until homeowners are hastily erecting flood barriers to prevent their houses from flooding fails those who stand to lose the most.
Additional funding is of course the simplest solution to the issue. But redesigning the end-to-end framework for flood resilience is an exercise in streamlining bureaucracy that would bear tangible, visible results. If we are to expect an army of industrious self-taught volunteers to be the first line of defence to mitigate environmental extremes, the least we could do is provide them with the resources to fix the problem whilst the sun is (literally) shining.