While our politicians engaged in a colourful (but highly unproductive) 24 hours of finger-pointing about who is responsible for the floods, rain continues to fall and water levels continue to rise across southern England. 

Some have begun to call for a fundamental review to learn lessons from this crisis, but both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said that the immediate focus must, rightly, be on helping with those affecting by the floods.

Before committing to any review it is worth remembering what happened to previous reports such as the one led by Sir Michael Pitt following the 2007 floods (see here).  The Government seemed to like this one as it said this in its coalition agreement...

We will take forward the findings of the Pitt Review to improve our flood defence and prevent unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk’.

So, how are they getting on?  Successive governments reported on their response - the final one in 2012 (see here).  It is clear that many lessons have been learnt and considerable progress has been made but we have repeatedly said there is more to do.  

I was reminded today of last year's Wildlife and Countryside Link's Nature Check report (see here).  This report, if you remember, is the NGO annual assessment of the progress that the UK Government has made against its coalition agreement commitments.   2013 was the third such assessment of progress where we deployed a Red-Amber-Green rating to judge progress against each of the commitments.

The Government's performance on flood prevention was rated red (ie failing) in three successive years, 2011, 2012 and 2013.  

This is what caught my eye when I re-read the 2013 report today.....

"...Flooding is becoming ever more frequent and the Committee on Climate Change has this year said that ‘it is likely that the pattern of extreme events seen in recent years will become the new normal.’ Defra has made efforts to protect flood defence spending but, at the same time, building in areas of flood risk has not only continued but has increased: 560 residential planning units were built in England and Wales in 2012/13 against Environment Agency advice, an increase on the absolute numbers from both 2010/11 and 2011/12. This is not a new problem; the Climate Change Adaptation Sub Committee has identified a trend in increased development since 2001 despite successive policy interventions.

...Furthermore, given that two thirds of the flooding experienced in 2007 was caused by surface water, it is very disappointing that the implementation of SuDS [Sustainable Urban Drainage Schemes] has been so delayed, and that there is still no clear direction from government on retrofitting priority areas for SuDS...

...The development of natural flood alleviation is an area where the Government’s performance has been consistently poor. In order to improve this rating in 2014, the Government needs to substantially reduce building on floodplains and enact outstanding legislative provisions that will enable the widespread development of SuDS. It also needs to and explore alternatives to simply allowing more desilting, such as: better awareness of catchment issues and management amongst farmers and landowners; better soil management to decrease the need for desilting; and an improved consenting process."

So, I am all for reviews to help us learn lessons, but political leaders need to follow through on the recommendations.  And it is our job, as part of civil society to hold them to their commitments.  The latest crisis makes it abundantly clear that we need to do more to adapt to extreme weather events.  Exactly how will inevitably become the focus of the debate over the next few weeks and months.

  • Martin, surely this is the moment for as effective an alliance of voluntary organisations to put forward their proposals, as for the Levels alliance, rather than waiting to see what Government do next ? Surely there must be a realisation that there is probably neither the imagination nor the political will to crack this. Unlike Government, you and others can now show the leadership we are lacking by putting forward ideas that will help protect people's houses, benefit wildlife and bring farmers on board by bringing their businesses into the solutions for flood management (not control !) And just remember, there is no exit strategy from this one: its only going to get worse if we can't deploy our expertise flexibly to seek novel, institution breaking solutions.