The focus for now may be on the surprise freezing spell still gripping the UK, but many in Britain are already enduring the devastating impacts of flooding. As the snow melts, one certainty is that many more are going to suffer, having their homes, businesses and livelihoods threatened.
It’s likely to stay that way for many weeks, if not months. For in much of the country, the land is soaked, the reservoirs full, and the rivers are already at their limits. The scientists are telling us with increasing stridency that, with climate change, we can only expect this to become more common – affecting people who never thought they were at risk. More than 1 million people are now in the target group for the government’s direct flood warning service.
One issue – insurance for those at risk of flooding – is already well understood and has been widely discussed, but all that talk has not resulted in any government action. The government is once again demonstrating its incompetence and inertia in being unable to come to a settlement with the industry over provision of cover for homes at high flooding risk. The deadline is June – fast approaching – and the 200,000 households which face being unable to get insurance now need the security of this problem being resolved.
Flood defence funding a disappointment
What’s also well understood is that annual spending on flood defences has fallen. The government’s much vaunted “partnership funding” to pay for flood defences has been disappointing, with the private sector, rather unsurprisingly, simply not coming up with the cash. Where the partner is a housing developer, the issue of who is going to pay for essential maintenance of the defences is a further question which remains unanswered.
And it’s deeply alarming that, as well as slashing the money available for building new defences, the government is also cutting basic maintenance for those already there on rivers, from £68m to £39m. There is no point in building flood defences if they aren’t then maintained.
There’s a whole raft of important policy around flooding that needs to be, and isn’t, being highlighted. At regular intervals, the government has proclaimed its “war on red tape”. But you can replace that title with another – “war on essential regulations to keep us and our property safe and secure.”
Nowhere for the rain to go
Increased problems with flooding aren’t just related to climate change. They are also driven by what we’ve done to the natural world – for example, replacing soft, spongy, soak-up-the-rain grass with rapid runoff hard surfaces, cutting down trees, and building on floodplains that used to hold water away from settlements.
The government and developers should be doing more to ensure that every new development is not only appropriate for the local area, but also able to hold on to the water that falls in heavy downpours. This would also help to address drought – a growing concern for many regions.
We also need to stop building on floodplains – 10,000 new homes were built on floodplains in 2010, while applications to build 28,000 more were made in 2011. It’s really not enough to say that flood defences are being or have been put in place. As residents of a new estate in Ruthin in Wales found out last December, a home built on what was locally known as “wet field” wasn’t a great idea in the first place.
With development in flood risk areas often resulting in massive costs to householders, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is right to warn that there should be a far greater focus on protecting vulnerable communities – those at greatest risk from flooding but with the least ability to cope or indeed to move elsewhere. Developers can walk away from these properties, but the people living in them often can’t.
This government’s new ‘presumption’ in favour of development through the National Planning Policy Framework is only likely to increase this trend. And even if homes on floodplains are adequately protected for now, the water that used to rest there during floods now has to go somewhere else, quite possibly to parts of town not previously considered at risk.
We also need strong measures to protect gardens and green spaces, particularly in cities, where they act as an important way of absorbing. According to a recent report, an area of green gardens the size of 2.5 Hyde Parks has been lost across the city each year on average since the late 1990s, mainly to hard standing for cars and extra buildings.
Flooding is today’s problem, and one which will pose a serious threat to large numbers of Britons for the foreseeable future – to their lives and to their property. It is a national issue requiring national solutions, and as such, it’s one more area where the government’s “we’ll leave it to the private sector” ideology just won’t do.
Water levels rise in the city of York, Britain, after the river Ouse burst its banks, flooding the city centre last year. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/EPA
By Natalie Bennett. Source: The Guardian