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The floods – do we need a planning revolution?

24 February 2014

Trudi Elliott

The current floods have provoked a torrent of analysis and blame, and as ever planning is in the frame - including calls for a 'planning revolution'.

FloodThe fact that we flood should not come as the ‘shock’ that it apparently has. We have been warned. It’s on our National Risk Register. The 2012 UK Climate Changes Risk Assessment spelt out starkly that one in six homes in the UK is at some risk of flooding – a staggering 6 million properties. Of these, 560,000 properties are exposed to significant risk. The RTPI Map for England project highlighted the correlation between some of the places prone to flooding with expected housing demand growth, and just for good measure water stress or shortages too.

Neither of course is this the first time the UK has experienced significant floods, or even the worst. In 1953, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and nineteen were killed in Scotland. 32,000 people were evacuated. In summer 2007, 55,000 properties in the UK flooded, 7,000 people had to be rescued and half a million people were left without mains water and electricity. At the time, as regional director of the Government Office for the West Midlands and resilience lead for the Government Office network, I saw first hand the trauma that having your home or business flooded causes. So far around 6,000 households have suffered the stress caused by this year’s flooding. I understand that it’s of no comfort to those affected by flooding, but most of the homes flooded are ‘historic’ rather than newly-approved settlements. Some were at enough risk for their insurers to have flooding exclusion clauses in their policies – a further source of anguish. With flooding costing an estimated £1 billion each year on average it’s not hard to see why insurers and lenders alike are alive to flood risk and act accordingly.

After the 2007 floods Sir Mike Pitt undertook an exhaustive study into the causes. Government and all the key players accepted his 92 recommendations. In planning terms these reiterated the need for strong planning controls, the need for flood risk assessments at both plan and site level, and the importance of the sequential test for both building and planning control. For exceptional development permitted in a flood plain developers should meet the cost of defences or mitigation. The non-planning recommendations (which were the majority) were just as important, and required action from everyone, from individual householders to central government.

Planning policy reflects these risks and has not changed. Flood avoidance and mitigation remains a priority for planners. In England the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) contains all the important elements of PPS25, the previous policy on development and flood risk. Inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided by directing development away from areas at highest risk, but if development takes place in the flood plain it may only happen if it is made safe and does not increase flood risk elsewhere. The draft new planning practice guidance reflects this. Little new development is now approved in areas at high risk of flooding. The Environment Agency, which must be consulted, calculates that in 2012/13 in cases where they objected, 95% of applications were decided by planning authorities in line with their advice. That’s a lot of would be potential development in the flood plain that hasn’t happened. Modern design should mean that if there is building in flood prone areas, the effects are effectively mitigated. We have the technical know how to adapt, mitigate and protect against the impacts of climatic change.

I hope the Government’s response will not be to commission further studies, but like all of us take a long hard look at what previous reports have advised and what we have and have not actioned.

The Public Accounts Committee looked at flood risk management in 2012 and their report, like Sir Michael’s, should be re-read when the waters subside. Calls for a reform of the planning system and simply blaming new development in the flood plain are wide of the mark.

I hope the Government’s response will not be to commission further studies, but like all of us take a long hard look at what previous reports have advised and what we have and have not actioned. It is clear we need a national debate on the amount of effort, resources and brain power we are going to apply to the task. Planners look at the long as well as the short term and this is an area where the financial costs of taking action now need to be weighed against the enormous economic, social and environmental benefits over a longer than usual term.

I hope this latest experience will remain in our consciousness long enough to address these long-term issues and not just clean-up the current mess.

About Trudi Elliott

Trudi Elliott CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. Since joining the Institute in 2011, Trudi has led the RTPI’s work on responding to the challenges of planning reform across the UK, and working with our international sister organisations. 

Trudi sits on the Editorial Group of the Journal of Planning, Theory and Practice, the Policy Council of National Infrastructure Planning Association, the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference Committee, the DCLG Planning Sounding Board and is a Council Member of the University of Warwick.  Trudi is currently a member of Lord Taylor’s review team reviewing planning guidance.

Trudi has worked in planning related fields for 20 years as Director of the Government Office for the West Midlands, Chief Executive of Bridgnorth District Council, Chief Executive of West Midlands Regional Assembly and the West Midlands Local Government Association. She has also worked as a lawyer in both the public and private sectors.