Planning for flooding should have the same priority as terrorism according to a new report. So what can industry do to stem the rising tides?

The summer’s events provided clear evidence that, without decisive action, climate change will see future generations frequently subjected to lengthy periods of homelessness; loss of water supply; insanitary living conditions; lack of access to clean water; and economic and social despair.

Although the temptation is to look for quick fixes – large projects to literally plug the gaps – the key point is sustainability. As an industry, we actually need to be working with the government and Local Authorities to plan, not for next summer, but for a landscape 100 years hence.

Flood risk is a predictable emergency incident and as such it is perfectly feasible to implement strategies to improve the resilience of the community in advance of an incident occurring. This preparedness is the process of adaptation and greater effort is needed to ensure that communities are protected.

Sustainable infrastructure

High level policy and planning guidance is already setting the agenda for step changes in the response to sustainability, flood risk management and climate change. In particular, DCLG’s Planning Policy Statement 25 (Development and Flood Risk) and Defra’s Making Space for Water provide platforms for significant shifts in the delivery of infrastructure that is adapted for the effects of climate change.

However, Sir Michael’s final report needs to recognise that a strategic approach is vital at the highest levels of power and that it is the ‘lifetime of the development’ that should be our benchmark for new infrastructure being promoted through the planning system.

Furthermore, the levels of service advocated for critical infrastructure in PPS 25 do not match the expectations of the community with respect to security of supply. Consequently financial decisions made today should include mechanisms that quantify the value of spending a little bit more money now so as to reduce the impact of future flooding. In doing so we will be able to satisfy present day expectations while drastically reduce the burden that will be placed on our children.

Of course, the greatest concern is that there is still a strongly established system that places great value on those who can “do it for less” and that the process and mechanisms to achieve “value engineered” solutions are firmly ensconced in the minds of those who design and invest in infrastructure.

There is still a significant danger that continuation of this emphasis will defeat any chance of delivering infrastructure that has long-term sustainability at its core. The operation of ‘Regulators’ who control funding will need to be examined and mechanisms developed so that they can be given the flexibility to plan and budget for the future effects of climate change.

Fit for purpose

Another area which needs to be addressed is the replacement and provision of new infrastructure that is not directly captured by the “sustainable” planning policies or linked directly to regeneration proposals.

For example, it is imperative that Local Authorities understand the reliance of communities on facilities such as electricity transformers, pumping stations, potable water and waste treatment facilities, generating equipment etc in areas where they can be affected by flood risk. Where it is impossible to avoid low lying land, mechanisms must be introduced so that equipment is designed or upgraded so as to remain operational during emergency failure events. It is also important to remember that while existing flood maps show the probability of flooding today, they do not describe how the hazards will be increased in the future!

To avoid placing unsustainable burdens on future generations the equipment should not only be able to operate in a predictable flood event, such as that witnessed in Gloucester and Tewkesbury last summer, but also function so that it can provide support during emergency situations under conditions when most normal operations have failed. The level of flood hazard associated with the flooding at Gloucester and Tewkesbury was utterly predictable and we must act now to reinforce our infrastructure so that it can withstand more extreme events in the future. It’s important to remember that the hazards and consequences posed by flood risk emergencies can be predicted so there really is little excuse for the malaise.

Predicting the floods

The building blocks are already in place to ensure the easy adoption of an informed strategic approach to flooding. Using the latest generation of computer software it is possible to generate high quality predictions of the hazards posed by flood events, not just now, but in 100 years time.

Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest challenge is changing institutional practices so that they can implement strategic approaches that take tens of years to deliver. It is hoped that Sir Michael Pitt’s final review will identify the importance of establishing a framework where responsibilities are clearly identified, enabling the delivery of strategic responses that ensure the future sustainability of UK communities.