When Storm Desmond came, it was the North West of the UK that was most affected with 20% of the rain that normally occurs in Cumbria in a year falling in a 24 hour period in some areas.
Although the North West suffered most extensively, the rest of the UK saw 6,500 properties flooded and two deaths linked to flooding, making this a record-breaking storm which tested flood defences beyond their limits.
Will McBain, associate director at Arup and a global expert on flood resilience, was on the panel for The Big Debate in October, and recently commented that preventing severe flooding events in the UK is not just a question of adequate investment, but that other causes may be at play which have led to the recent cluster of floods such as changes in agriculture.
“Since 2005, significant investment has been made in reducing the likelihood of flooding in several of the affected areas across Cumbria,” he said. “There is no indication that these schemes did not do their intended job.”
However, he adds that “you cannot design flood defences to contain all foreseeable floods,” alluding to the extreme nature of December’s events.
Were UK flood defences effective?
Sue Illman, Construction Industry Council Champion for Flood Mitigation and another panelist at The Big Debate, was also optimistic about the capabilities of flood defences and the need to manage expectations in the case of very extreme events.
“Resilience does not mean that a building will never flood,” she observes. ”It means we have adapted our buildings to enable them to recover from a disaster as quickly and easily as possible.”
However, she also suggests that such issues were only given priority by the government retrospectively in the wake of “disasters.”
Illman comments that properly addressing future extreme events would require “time, effort, money and commitment” to be given to the problem by this and subsequent Governments, as well as the industry having “proper regulation, clarity of responsibilities and the power to enforce these appropriately.”
Simon Rawlinson, a leading management consultant for Arcadis UK working in the construction sector, points out that Storm Desmond affected not only homes, but also major electricity and rail infrastructure and that such events represent a “national economic problem which needs a national response.”
Rawlinson acknowledges that it was a complex issue, with challenges such as new, more resilient flood defences causing water to take longer to disperse and the Government’s “U-turn on SuDS meaning that an opportunity to make housing more resilient has been foregone.”
The extremity of the recent event highlighted a clear need to reassess our flood risk assumptions in order to correctly prioritise investments in future.
How will the UK cope with future flooding?
Tim Young, partner at buildings consultant John Rowan & Partners, comments that this most recent flooding episode has “raised a lot of questions, not only around why flood defence projects were seen as a low priority by government, but also about the effectiveness of the flood defence projects that did go forward.”
He highlighted the fact that £6 million was spent on defences in Keswick following 2009 flooding which were intended to withstand a ‘one in 100 year flood’ but which took only six years to be overwhelmed, and asked in the light of this whether “it is time to think differently about how we protect people and property.”
Andy Williamson, Group Managing Director of roofing supplier IKO raised similar concerns that – with KPMG having estimated the cost of December’s floods at over £5 billion, including £2 billion on repairing flood defences – this will use up 90% of the UK’s five year flood budget.
He adds that this all demonstrates how “poorly prepared” the UK was for a flood on this scale, but that climate change is likely to make such extreme events more common in the near future.
Williamson stresses the need to change our priorities as a nation in terms of where we are building and how we design our homes, with one in every 14 new homes still being built on land with a significant chance of flooding.
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