Ministers should be applauded for recognising that there’s simply no way we could tell the thousands of key workers and low income families, desperate for a decent home, that we can’t build any more new homes because of concerns about flood plains.
David Orr, National Housing Federation, BBC News, 2007.
For the past six weeks, Somerset has experienced its most significant flooding in decades that have at last required calling out the army.
While commentators fixate on dredging rivers, or more sustainably planting trees, or reintroducing beavers as the solution to prevent more homes from being flooded, those with longer memories may cast them back to 2007, when much of central and southwestern England was underwater from some of the worst flooding in living memory.
Communities Minister Eric Pickles might like to consider the inconvenient truth of his own words in 2007 while in opposition. Following the floods, he said in response to Labour’s housing strategy that: “if you build houses on flood plains it increases the likelihood that people will be flooded”.
A flood of water and bad ideas
As the still-beleaguered residents of the Somerset levels will recall, the floods of 2007 followed the wettest May, June and July since records began in 1766. The airwaves and newspapers were similarly awash with opinion in response to the government’s ambitious plans to build 3m new homes by 2020. Inevitably, it was said, so long as the proper defences were in place, some of these new homes would be built on floodplains.
The cost of 2007’s wettest-ever summer: 7,000 businesses and 48,000 homes were flooded in the South West, Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, prompting 120,000 household insurance claims, 27,000 commercial claims at a £3bn overall cost to insurers.
The subsequent inquiry led by Sir Michael Pitt published its review the following summer. It found that around 10% of properties in England were located on floodplains, with 11% of new homes since 2000 built in flood hazard areas, and 16,000 dwellings since 2006 built in high flood risk areas. Roughly a quarter of properties flooded in summer 2007 had been built in the last 25 years. This, the review pointed out, emphasised the vital importance of strong planning controls and well-informed planning decisions.
Realising there needed to be a balance between development needs and flood risk, the idea of “environmental limits” was discussed within Defra. In putting “the green back into the Green Belt” as then environment secretary David Miliband said, this stressed the importance of the ecosystems approach.
For example, planting urban woodland improves biodiversity and wildlife, provides a degree of flood control, renewable wood to offset climate change, and attractive environments for exercise and recreation. Strips of planted green space alongside city river banks are cheaper than expensive concrete barriers, and provide a fall-back area, a “turquoise belt”, that could be flooded without great risk or expense, and also provide for leisure and biodiversity at the same time.
Of the 90 recommendations in Pitt’s review, two clearly stated there should be a presumption against building in high risk areas. This was in accordance with the government’s planning policy on flood risk, known as PPS25.
The review also called for the effectiveness of PPS25 and the Environment Agency’s powers to challenge development to be kept under review, and strengthened if necessary. Another recommendation stated that Defra, the Environment Agency, and Natural England should establish through Catchment Flood Management Plans a programme that would find a way of working with, rather than against, natural processes.
These approaches, which included setting back river defences and relocating buildings if necessary, were considered particularly important in the face of the predicted increase in river flow levels. Flood risk had to be managed co-operatively between local authorities, the Environment Agency and developers, in a more sustainable way and also as a means to provide more attractive places to live. Newspaper editorials at the time called for there to be “no backsliding on commitments to be better prepared in future” and that there should be “no cherry-picking of the Pitt recommendations for quick political gain in the run-up to a general election.
But a general election later, in 2012 prime minister David Cameron is pledging to ”cut through the dither“ that is holding Britain in "paralysis” and has brought forward by contentious measures to relax rules on planning applications with an eye to boosting growth, and providing 75,000 new homes. The National Planning Policy Framework is proclaimed “simple”, and had reduced planning policy from more than 1,000 pages to under 100, said to pave the way for swifter, clearer decisions.
Otto Thoresen, director-general of the The Association of British Insurers, expressed immediate concern that the framework could lead to greater inappropriate development in flood risk areas, something that the current “rigorous planning system” was a bulwark against. The result, he predicted, would not be the “stimulation of the economy,” but “misery for people when their homes are flooded”.
The National Flood Forum’s chairman, Charles Tucker, similarly argued that the new framework “has, at a stroke, scrapped the carefully constructed raft of technical guidance, context and definitions built up over years” for flood protection.
Dredging as a solution was raised following the Cumbria floods of 2009, to which Professor Colin Thorne, fluvial geomorphologist at the University of Nottingham, responded that floods caused by a huge amounts of rainfall cannot be entirely prevented. Constantly dredging rivers and clearing vegetation to do so would be unsustainably expensive, financially, socially and in terms of biodiversity and habitat loss.
It is clear to see, reflecting back on the floods of 2007 (and those in 2005 and 2009), the lack of integration and disjointed policy across the two central government departments has still not been resolved seven years later. The fixation with dredging continues, and David Cameron has called for dredging to start as soon as possible, reversing previous statements that it would be little help.
Perhaps instead if the media turned their attention to dredging the Defra archives, they’d find the “inconvenient truth” of floodplain development – that houses built on floodplains could flood – a truth currently lying buried in the sediments of their own filing cabinets.