Joining up local flooding policy

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Dr Andy Johnson, chief operating officer of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), reflects on the response to the recent flooding across the UK and why policymakers should prioritise flood recovery.

It is time to reflect on the government’s response to the 2015-16 floods. Firstly, a strong and well-resourced flood forecasting system successfully predicted the weather and its impact. The accurate early warning resulted in a generally good response from the emergency services, the Environment Agency and individual householders to protect their property. Even loss adjusters are coming out of the events with their reputation enhanced. However, after that, the well-known and entirely predictable path from emergency measures to recovery broke down. Why is that? 

Why is it that the collapse of a bridge at Tadcaster leaves everybody scratching their heads, not sure what to do or who should pay? Why is it that the Environment Agency was yet again vilified and told to completely reassess its core principles? How is it that the government miraculously found millions of pounds to help out householders and farmers? Why is it that the government is asking local authorities to give council tax holidays to flooded businesses? Why are we still relying on the Bellwin funding system, which covers the cost of the immediate emergency but not the cost of long-term recovery? 


The answers to these questions are complex. There is an element of political expediency. Media attention is inevitably on the flood and its immediate impact, meaning that politicians need a good response to that part, but can worry less about the long-term, less visible consequences. There also needs to be a recognition that spending a few million on a state-of-the-art weather prediction centre and utilising emergency services that are ‘paid for’ anyway is relatively cheap compared to the cost of flood defences, rebuilding damaged infrastructure and caring for victims of floods. 

Throughout the floods this year and the last, we kept hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ – yet what’s happening is not unprecedented. It is entirely consistent with predictions made by climatologists, not just in relation to climate change but also our increased understanding of the El Niño effect. 

Prioritising recovery 

An understanding that flooding events such as those in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2015-16 are as regular as they appear – and not just bad luck – is an important first step. Once this step has been taken, two priorities emerge. 

Firstly, a way of paying for managing floods that moves beyond Bellwin and its constrained, post hoc bidding process. Secondly, a clear thread that links prediction, protection, emergency protection and recovery. I would argue that policymaking around flood management has followed this timeline rather than an assessment of flooding impact.

So, flood policy implementation has tackled prediction, it has funded flood protection schemes, and it’s looked at procedures during emergencies – and yet has not really got round to recovery. However, an examination of flooding policy based on impact would almost certainly prioritise recovery. The real impacts of flooding are the ruined lives left behind, the damaged infrastructure, the blighted properties and the bankrupted businesses. 

If recovery were prioritised then things would look quite different. Firstly, the government would stop pretending that it can manage flooding from Whitehall. All flooding is local.  If the priority really were focused on the needs of flooded residents then the government would ensure that they had suitable places to stay (not caravans) while their property was being repaired, and while they got back to work and got their children back to school quickly. It would also ensure they had access to financial advice, had their mental health needs addressed, and were able to meet other flooded residents and work together to ensure a better response next time. 

Council-led recovery 

Flooding policy built around local recovery led by local authorities would change the dynamic of flood management in the UK; it would be led by democratic accountability rather than remote expert opinion. 

Once flood recovery becomes part of the democratic process then the door is opened to flood protection becoming a local electoral issue, resulting in greater public ‘buy-in’ to decisions on whether to protect an area or concentrate on recovery. This in turn points the way to a different way of funding flood recovery. 

Local flood recovery funding would require contributions from planning, care services, housing, education and public health budgets from within the council, supplemented by local mental health services, Citizens Advice Bureau, water companies and the Environment Agency. It would require a locally developed strategy and funding plan.

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