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A rising risk

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

Paul Cobbing, chief executive of the National Flood Forum, discusses the lessons learnt from the organisation’s recent conference and the future for flood risk management.

Flooding is a risk that is set to rise in the future, and with the Government’s agreement on flood risk insurance about to expire, there are potentially significant impacts for councils across the country.

Following the National Flood Forum’s recent national conference, ‘Insurance, Communities, Flood Risk: What will the future hold?’ chief executive Paul Cobbing spoke to PSE about the current issues and forthcoming challenges for flood protection.

Cobbing described the event as “very positive” and said it helped to drive the importance of insurance issues, with a “surprising” amount of common agreement that resulted from discussion.

This included the suggestion of a pooling model of insurance, where the amount paid in by everyone would cover the cost of those impacted by flooding. Those at very high risk would pay extra, but cover would be widely available.

“A proportion of premiums would build up into a national pot which insurance companies could draw on to pay out claims, or a proportion of the claims,” Cobbing said. “That means the risk is spread across the industry, but it’s also spread across the communities.”

However, the consequence of not agreeing a new way forward is that many householders in flood risk areas will not be able to get insurance, with consequences for mortgages, small businesses and people who want to move.

“There is a real danger of flood risk areas becoming blighted if we don’t get the right solution”, Cobbing said.

Rising levels

As flood risk increases, the level of protection must also advance in order to secure safety and savings. This doesn’t just mean the implementation of extra infrastructure, Cobbing added, but concerns better risk management.

“I think we’ve come a long way since perhaps 10 years ago when we thought of flood protection as purely about putting up walls. Now I think we’re moving into a position where we are seeing it as about management of risk,” he said.

This includes more property level protection schemes, community flood action plans, asset management and the use of new technology such as telemetry, which monitors water levels and issues alerts that allow flood defence measures to be activated as early as possible. Cobbing emphasised the importance of prevention rather than focusing on addressing the consequences of flooding, and suggested that investment should follow this.

He said: “You could argue that it’s wasted money; that it’s a sticking plaster rather than a solution. But that isn’t just about the insurance industry – that actually requires a lot of other things to happen as well.”

Protection is the priority

Promoting awareness of the dangers of flooding still requires much work, Cobbing said, as a huge number of people do not realise that they are at risk of flooding. He highlighted that communicating the message to these people, as well as to those who are conscious of their risk, but unsure about how they should act, was of vital importance and must be improved.

“1 in 6 of the population is at risk of flooding and most people aren’t aware of that – we need to find ways of actually getting that message across.”

In terms of councils taking more responsibility for their individual risk management, part of their new responsibilities under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 involves identifying and understanding the risks and communicating that effectively to their communities. There is also a need to get people involved in preparations and ensure they know what to do in the event of a flood; the National Flood Forum believes better communication will be necessary to achieve this aim.

New local flood risk management strategies are being developed and will be “absolutely key” to driving the right messages out, securing involvement and developing a strategic approach to flood risk management, Cobbing said.

Lessons for the future

Although prevention is the priority, flooding will continue to happen.

If people understand the best ways to react, it could improve safety as well as possibly reduce damage to their possessions. This can therefore mitigate the impact on both individuals and the wider community.

Referring to the lessons learnt at the conference, Cobbing concluded: “It’s a good platform to go forward on. We will have to see what the Government proposes for the insurance industry, but at least we know that people and partners have a good understanding of what we really want out of this.

“The Government want the same thing: fair and affordable insurance that is readily accessible and supports people to make sure they aren’t left in the lurch. We now need to find a way to achieve it.”

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