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Planning around Flood Risk

06 January 2015

The disruption, damage and loss of life caused by flooding events in the UK in recent years has sharpened attention towards developments that have been permitted in flood zones. Where homes and other developments have proceeded on areas identified as flood risk zones the media point the finger of blame on the ‘planners’.

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While a standard reaction from politicians in Westminster is that flood risk areas should be rigidly protected from building, can we simply assume a zero development attitude to development in such places? Do we understand the risk and impact of flooding in many of those areas? Given that pressure to develop and accommodate growth is, if anything, intensifying the agenda must now be as much about how we design with and around flooding, than it is about refusing to allow development on flood risk areas.

The floods also highlighted the dynamics of climate change and how we predict and respond to flood events. According to the best evidence available, river and groundwater flooding may well become more common and be more pronounced in some places. We need to improve knowledge and understanding of the evidence and of technical aspects ranging from hydrological modelling through to SUDs, as well as ensuring a clear policy frame to enable good informed and innovative decision-making. There are numerous tools and options available to help with this challenge; both in terms of understanding the likelihood and dynamics of flooding in specific places and how to design around flooding. Indeed there are good examples where new development has been successful in the past decade and the ability to work with exceptions testing under the NPPF provides a space for innovation.

That is not to say that retention of floodplain will not be the desirable outcome in many instances, but too often there appears a default ‘no’ response, which reflects a rigid or blanket application of policy locally, which is sometimes accompanied or informed by a generic risk-based sensibility at the national level, which prompts a binary ‘yes or no’ recommendation. Well considered proposals and responses to new development in Flood Zones, (especially in Zones 3a and 3b) should increasingly be part of a recognised set of options amongst local planners, local politicians and local communities. The creative integration of different disciplinary strengths is required to support this.

It has been proven that new development, and in particular larger schemes, can be rendered sustainable on flood risk land.

It has been proven that new development, and in particular larger schemes, can be rendered sustainable on flood risk land. The question is how do planners reach recommendations and negotiate effectively around this complex, multi-facetted and emotive subject. For me, risk lies at the heart of this problem. The complexity and uncertainty surrounding flooding, as well as the political and technical challenges that frame this issue can easily lead to a safety first approach. Uneven knowledge and understanding of flood risk makes the challenge of working creatively and with confidence in this context more difficult, with resource cuts and a yawning gap in strategic planning compounding the issue. So, while in England there is clear guidance and mechanisms in place to help frame decisions, and to entertain ‘exceptions’ the information to inform and generate innovative workable alternatives is wanting. We know little about what local authority planners, local politicians and local communities actually need to be intelligent clients and make informed nuanced decisions but there appears to be a lack of easily accessed and interpretable evidence that is uptodate and of sufficient scale or granularity.

Appropriate strategic planning would help address complex cross boundary issues such as catchment management. Yet we also need to think about what is actually needed from strategic planning in relation to flood resilience. The importance of wider sustainable land management practices and a greater awareness of the interconnectedness and relations which affect how water behaves, highlights a need for planners to embrace models such as ecosystem services thinking, as well as sustainable urban design. Overall there needs to be adequate incentive for creative partnerships amongst the key actors, including the Environment Agency, the local authority and the promoter of the development.

While the guidance and policy frame is about right in England, as set out in the NPPF and the accompanying technical guidance, there are some things that do need to be done - and sooner is better. The Royal Town Planning Institute has identified the threat to towns and cities from increased intensity of rainfall as a key issue in its Centenary Planning Horizons Report  Future Proofing Society, which shows why urban planning is needed to make countries more resilient. One problem is that as things stand the parts of the country which will grow fastest include many locations highly prone to river and tidal flooding. I consider that there is a pressing need to undertake research regarding planners responses to, and knowledge about, flood management and mitigation and what is actually needed to help them make the right decisions - using the existing policy structures and based on environmental (itself multi-dimensional), social and economic grounds. Some work is being done around this, notably by the flood hazards research team at Middlesex and by multi-disciplinary research teams at the University of Reading, see: http://www.walker-institute.ac.uk/about/constituent_groups.htm The message is that we need both to learn how to shape our development sustainably around flooding better and invest in sustainable catchment scale planning to manage water.

Professor Gavin Parker is Chair of Planning Studies at Henley Business School, University of Reading