Over 5.2 million homes and businesses in England are currently at risk from flooding, according to the Environment Agency, and more will become threatened in the future. The Climate Change Committee has listed flooding and coastal change as one of the greatest climate change risks for the UK, both now and in the future. The increasing frequency of severe weather, and its impact on people and communities, was demonstrated in the flooding that occurred over the autumn and winter of both 2019–20 and 2020–21. In July 2020, the Government published a new Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Policy Statement, which it described as “the most significant ramping up of flood policies for a decade”.
Our inquiry looked at several aspects of Government policy on flood risk management and the response to increasingly frequent severe flood events. Our key findings are as follows:
- The Government should provide greater certainty about its long-term objective for flood resilience and how it aligns to climate change. The Government’s has rejected the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation of a nationwide standard for flood resilience, but evidence shows that such a standard would improve public confidence and address limitations of cost-benefit approaches to allocating funding.
- The Government has committed to doubling capital investment in flood risk management, but it is critical that this not wasted by failing to maintain existing defences. Pressures on the maintenance budget for flood risk will only be exacerbated by the increased investment in new defences, as well as the impact of climate change. The Government should put in place a long-term resource budget settlement, aligned with the increased capital investment, so that the Environment Agency and others are able to effectively plan for and maintain the network of flood and coastal defences.
- There is an absence of support for the long-term recovery of communities in the aftermath of a flood. Local communities have vividly described the significant long-term challenges that result from being flooded, especially the impact on mental health. The Government needs to develop a properly resourced action plan with local partners for the long-term physical, economic, and psychological recovery of communities impacted by flooding.
- The Government must provide leadership to local authorities facing potentially significant increases in future flood risk due to the changing climate. Local planning authorities lack the knowledge and/or resources to effectively factor the impacts of climate change into their local plans and development decisions. The Government must ensure that all local planning authorities have the powers, resources and information they need to perform this function, including properly trained dedicated staff.
- The current approach to promoting sustainable drainage systems, coupled with the persistence of the automatic right to connect surface water drainage to the public sewer, is not working. While the uptake of sustainable drainage systems has improved in recent years, the installation of high-quality SuDS features delivering multiple environmental benefits may still be insufficiently incentivised. The Government has not adequately explained why it believes the widespread support for the commencement of Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 amongst stakeholders to be mistaken. The Government should commit to ending the automatic right to connect to the public sewer, and consult on measures to improve the uptake of high-quality SuDS, including an option for commencing Schedule 3.
- The Government needs to explain how it will ensure a catchment-based approach to incentivising natural flood management. Working with natural processes is an important part of a holistic approach to flood risk management, but measures need to be suited to each catchment. There are several initiatives that could serve as delivery vehicles for natural flood management, and a catchment-based approach requires join-up between them to ensure that interventions are appropriately targeted and incentivised. Any measures which call on farmers and land managers to allow their land to be used for flood management must provide proper payment for the public goods provided.
- Meaningful engagement with local communities on decisions about flood risk brings practical benefits. Local people often feel disengaged and ignored in decisions relevant to flood risk, and risk management authorities’ consultations are often not perceived as meaningful or impactful. Communities must be vital delivery partners in the Government’s approach to building resilience, not just treated as passive recipients. The Government should work with the voluntary sector to develop guidance for all risk management and planning authorities on how to meaningfully engage with local people. It should also review the institutional arrangements for community engagement in flood risk management, to identify best practice, and ensure that risk management authorities are properly resourced to carry out this engagement.