Time to rethink local flooding solutions
30 July, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Yorkshire Post

It is hard to overstate the upheaval and upset caused to thousands of families by the flooding across the country in recent weeks. The disruption to the ordinary routines of individuals and businesses is compounded by the chaos affecting event and service planning, not to mention the sudden demand for repairs to basic utilities and necessities. Across this region, communities never before concerned with flooding have suddenly been turned upside-down, now facing many months of slow recovery.

A cynic would say that the volume of national media reporting is proportionate to a flood’s distance from the capital. Hull and Sheffield deserved far greater and swifter national support, and it was on the basis of lessons learned in June that eventually the Whitehall machine geared up to responding more efficiently in July elsewhere in England. It is foolish, of course, to seek to pin ‘blame’ for what are essentially ‘acts of god’, where the risk from torrents of water on a scale rarely seen before could never be entirely ameliorated. However, it is important that policy-makers try harder to prioritise environmental challenges.

Long after the headlines have changed and the news media spotlight has gone, who will make sure that help continues and future damage is averted? National politicians should, of course, supply sympathy and emergency resources, but they cannot lead the day-to-day preventative work needed to avoid what is an increasing risk of climate-induced flooding. It will fall to local leaders – councils, emergency services, environment and planning officials – to work together more effectively than ever.

So does your local council have the leadership and powers needed to get to grips with the challenge of flooding risk? I believe there are five key changes that need considering by every council leader, chief executive and Government department as a matter of urgency.

First, we should recognise that local knowledge is the most valuable commodity in making the right decisions to prevent flood risk. Councils should listen more carefully to residents and businesses, and Government and its quangos must take heed of warnings from local councils. Complaints about blocked drains or poor flood defences are too often unheard until it is too late. We need to use local intelligence as a precious resource, rather than see it ignored or squandered.

Second, the concept of ‘local strategic partnerships’ shouldn’t merely extend to education, crime, health etc. It should also mean thinking through and rehearsing the ‘gold command’ system required when emergencies do occur, where a single unquestioning lead is needed with all other local agencies falling in behind. Management is too dispersed across different chains of responsibility and departmental silos. In an emergency situation we need instant horizontal accountability, not a mentality that waits for a green-light from on-high.

Third, the numbers of residents without home insurance is too high, and is a particular problem in council estates and poorer neighbourhoods. If the insurance industry and local councils don’t get to grips with this lack of safety net, there will too often be a need for the taxpayer to pick up the pieces, which doesn’t feel entirely fair to those who do pay for their own insurance. The industry must get together to map out where insurance cover is lowest, and we then need to consider reforms to tackle this deficiency – backed up perhaps by a legal requirement to insure with new support for those in most difficulty.

Fourth, the new consultation on housing policy this week must look at ways to ensure flood defences are robust before planning permissions are granted. While we know that 10% of England sits in flood plains and that historic towns and cities shouldn’t freeze their growth, we should insist on certainty henceforth that new development is sustainable and won’t compound existing risks.

Lastly, we need a more proactive mindset in Whitehall. As a former Minister for Civil Contingencies and Emergency Planning, thrown into action during the terrorist response following September 11th 2001, I know first hand just how far central Government needed (and still needs) dragging up from it’s mid-twentieth century modus operandi. Plans for the full array of domestic eventualities should surely now be in as good a state as plans for a cold war nuclear winter. The urgency of daily policy reactiveness too often ‘crowds out’ the important prevention of risks before they occur. Just as Sir Nicholas Stern’s climate change report refreshingly sought to quantify the potential financial costs likely if no action is taken, so too should the Treasury should systematically analyse the country’s vulnerabilities and where help and resources are needed the most.

It is unglamorous and unrelenting work, but we should help our local authorities and local leaders by pressing for these reforms. The success and stability of future generations of businesses and communities depend on the choices we make today.