135.The previous Committee’s interim report into Coastal flooding and erosion, and adaptation to climate change in November 2019 called on the EA and the Government to explain how they will ensure meaningful long-term engagement with affected communities on the implications of changes to the coast and how it is defended. Our current inquiry suggests that challenges in ensuring that local communities feel engaged in decisions about flood risk management cover all forms of flooding.
136.The evidence we have received suggests that the issue is often not an absence of consultation, but a lack of confidence that consultations will make any difference. The National Flood Forum told us that existing plans reflect “a patronising and paternalistic attitude that then results in consultation once plans have been decided”. Instead, the NFF argued that “people and communities should be automatically considered as equal partners in flood risk management”. Several local flood action groups mentioned that they had provided evidence for numerous reports/consultations, with one saying “yet nothing much has changed”.
137.The National Flood Forum told us that working with communities is usually seen as a cost, not an investment that leads to positive outcomes. Chief Executive Paul Cobbing said that flood action groups are “consistently ignored” even when they have input from planners or hydrologists. The Committee’s roundtable with flood risk communities in October highlighted that effective engagement, as well as improving confidence in risk management authorities and buy-in for key decisions, could bring real practical benefits due to the knowledge and networks of local residents. These benefits include providing local knowledge of drainage issues to planning authorities, and sometimes being able to deliver flood resilience measures at much reduced cost.
138.It was not just community groups arguing that meaningful engagement adds real value to flood risk schemes. The NFU told us that “local rural communities have much knowledge to contribute to help target investment in maintenance of flood risk assets and watercourses in anticipation of problems”. Ali Morse of Blueprint for Water said that engagement with local communities on natural flood management schemes often “results in a better scheme than was originally proposed”, but she stressed that any funding mechanism to promote NFM must allow time for this engagement to happen. We also consider the benefit of local input into flood maps and planning decisions in Chapter 3 of this Report.
139.The benefits of establishing and resourcing local Flood Action Groups (FLAGs), and engaging with the National Flood Forum to which many FLAGs are affiliated, have also been recognised by risk management authorities. Worcestershire County Council told us that the NFF provides “a unique and ideal independent conduit between RMAs and communities” and called for greater emphasis and resource to supporting the creation and maintenance of FLAGs. The NFF told us that there are no funding streams for community support, and that voluntary sector grant funding schemes “fail to recognise that many communities need facilitated support” in order to apply for funds and engage positively with RMAs.
140.We also heard some evidence suggesting that more effective engagement could be facilitated by institutional or procedural changes. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the National Trust highlighted that Catchment Partnerships could “play a greater role in helping to engage communities with flood risk management”. Telford and Wrekin Council told us that reducing burdens on local authorities to carry out large-scale consultations would allow for resources to be “better targeted to the right communities and stakeholders”.
141.The Secretary of State told us that community engagement with the Environment Agency and local authorities is “better than perhaps some people would caricature it”. The Environment Agency also told us that risk management authorities are “working ever more closely with local communities to involve them in decision making”, but recognised that there is more to do, including “developing RMA skills and capabilities needed to better support communities to adapt to future flooding”. It also noted that organisations such as the National Flood Forum and Action for Rural Communities in England work closely with communities, but that the work they are able to do is often limited by their funding.
142.We have listened with great concern to evidence that local communities feel disengaged and ignored in decisions relevant to flood risk. It is clear that, where risk management authorities do engage with local people, this engagement is often not perceived as meaningful or impactful. Communities must not be treated as groups who have things done to them, but as vital delivery partners in the Government’s approach to building resilience. While involving people in decisions that affect their lives is an end in itself, we have also been impressed by the evidence from Flood Action Groups about the positive practical benefits that meaningful engagement with local people can bring. In pursuing its ambition for flood resilience, the Government must ensure that the benefits of meaningful engagement are maximised. 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.
143.The Government should review the institutional arrangements for community engagement in flood risk management, to identify best practice and opportunities for more effective approaches. The Government should also commit to ensuring that risk management authorities are resourced and supported to carry out meaningful engagement, including making funding available to the voluntary sector to build capacity in other organisations.
298 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2019, , HC 56, para 17
299 The National Flood Forum ()
300 The National Flood Forum ()
301 The Keswick Flood Action Group (); The Caterham Flood Action Group ()
302 The National Flood Forum ()
304 See Annex.
305 The National Farmers Union () para 73
307 Worcestershire County Council ()
308 The National Flood Forum () para 2.13
309 The National Trust () para 2.2
310 Telford & Wrekin Council () para 5.4
312 The Environment Agency () para 5.10
313 The Environment Agency () para 5.9