Government spending on flood protection in England is fast approaching £1 billion a year. Yet homes and businesses, railways and roads, bridges and power infrastructure are increasingly being damaged or destroyed by devastating floods.
The government’s ambition is to increase long term resilience, but there seems to be no end in sight, with climate change making the risk more likely, and new homes still being built on floodplains. The solution would be to focus more investment on natural flood management schemes rather than hard defences.
Increased spending is not necessarily a good sign
Since 2005 the government has spent between £618 million and £842 million on building and maintaining flood defences every year, and spending has generally risen over this period. The government’s recent announcement, for an impressive sounding £5.2 billion over the next six years fits this trajectory, averaging out at £867 million a year. As an environmentalist, I normally spend my time arguing for increased government funding to tackle environmental issues. But, in this case, ever increasing spending on flood protection is indicative of a failure to deal properly with the underlying causes of flooding.
The vast majority of flood protection funding has been spent on dealing with the symptoms, not the causes. Faced with a pressing need to protect homes and businesses, the government has thrown money at erecting concrete walls and diverting rivers to channel water away from towns. But this investment has not included efforts to ‘slowing the flow’ of the water using natural solutions, to prevent rivers becoming overwhelmed in the first place. And, in the process, many smaller communities are left vulnerable and unprotected because they do not meet the cost-benefit threshold to justify the often staggering cost of hard infrastructure.
To avoid ever increasing costs, two underlying causes need to be addressed: homes and businesses sited in areas of high flood risk, and the lack of ability of land to stem the flow of water when extreme rain events happen. There is now lots of evidence that we can enhance land to make this happen, for example by increasing vegetation, improving soil health to decrease swift run-off into waterways, installing landscape features like attenuation ponds and bunds, building ‘leaky’ dams in streams etc. The government’s policy statement on flooding, and the Environment Agency’s flood strategy both emphasise the need for natural solutions. But this has yet to be backed up with the necessary funding. The funding announcement this week contained £200 million for “innovative projects such as sustainable drainage systems and nature-based solutions” which is a welcome increase on previous investment. But it is still a paltry four per cent of the overall spend.
What needs to happen
We need to immediately stop building in areas at risk of flooding. More than 11,000 new homes are planned on land at the highest risk. This simply has to stop. With climate change increasing the likelihood of floods, more and more existing households are going to find themselves in newly high risk areas over the coming decades. We simply cannot afford for developers to keep cashing in on building even more homes in already risky areas. It is us as taxpayers that will have to pick up the bill for the continuing high cost of the flood defences that will inevitably be needed.
A much higher proportion of spending should be diverted to natural solutions. Analysis by Green Alliance and the National Trust, as well as many other groups and demonstration projects, shows that this can be a much more cost effective solution than traditional steel and concrete. Natural solutions also have significant co-benefits for wildlife, climate mitigation and the long term resilience and productivity of farming. We need to shift away from the current paradigm where steel and concrete is the default choice, with natural solutions seen as an occasional add-on, to one where natural solutions dominate and steel and concrete are only used when absolutely necessary.
And the taxpayer won’t always need to foot the bill for natural solutions. There are plenty of private interests that can see the value of investing. We’ve been working with others to demonstrate how Natural Infrastructure Schemes could bring together multiple private beneficiaries to fund natural flood management schemes.
To realise significant benefits and displace the need for hard defences, natural solutions have to be deployed at scale. If we don’t crack this, flood protection will become a bottomless money pit. We’ll always be one step behind the rising risk caused by our changing climate and poorly planned developments. We need to break the cycle with an order of magnitude increase in funding for natural flood management. It’s time for government to put its money where its mouth is, working alongside the private sector to fundamentally transform the way flood risk is managed.