Guest blog: Tom Harrison, Imperial College London
England’s traditional approach to flood defence became well established throughout the twentieth century: the greater the threat of floods to our towns and cities, the higher we built the concrete barriers to keep out the floodwater. And for a time, this tact didn’t serve us too badly! But in the face of climate change and growing flood risk, building taller and taller flood walls was never going to be enough to hold back the flood…
The hopelessness of using grey infrastructure alone to stop worsening floods has been deeply exposed by numerous devastating flood events across England in the twenty first century, most notably: 2007 in Gloucestershire, 2015 in Cumbria and most recently Storm Dennis in 2020. Something needed to change and the Pitt Review into the floods of summer 2007 indeed showed that a more holistic solution to flooding was required.
In line with European legislation, the Pitt review advocated taking a catchment-based approach to Flood Risk Management (FRM) – looking to manage rivers along their length and throughout their whole catchment (the land area that a single river drains) and not just where the flood risk was the greatest. The review proposed Natural Flood Management (NFM) solutions, such as tree planting and installing leaky dams, to retain and “slow the flow” of water throughout catchments. These natural solutions also frequently offer additional benefits, such as: locking up carbon, improving water quality and providing new habitat.
By increasing the focus on small-scale natural solutions to delay water upstream, it becomes possible to (as we have previously heard this year) “flatten the curve” and decrease the volume of water reaching rivers’ main channels at any one time. NFM complements the efforts of existing manmade defences downstream, elongating the lifespan of existing flood barriers and nullifying their need for continuous growth in the face of growing flood risk.
NFM is no silver bullet (and there is still much that needs to be learnt!) but by taking a broader catchment-based approach, the possibility of managing increasing flood risk in a sustainable manner has presented itself. However, nothing is ever simple! And new approaches inevitably bring new challenges. For local scale solutions (NFM is often conducted on a small scale, protecting small numbers of properties), more involvement of local communities is needed than has traditionally been the case in large scale FRM projects.
Community involvement, in any sort of project that affects residents, is increasingly seen as essential. In FRM projects, involving local residents is thought to result in: improved flood defence performance due to more detailed insight on the topography of the land and past flood events; improved buy-in and decreased local resistance to projects; and empowered and more resilient communities, who can take ownership of their own flood defences. This inclusive approach offers many benefits, but how to ensure effective and appropriate levels of community involvement, whilst avoiding complications, is an area that requires further research.
A study at Imperial College London is looking to do just this. It aims to understand how central local involvement is to successful FRM in a local context and ultimately, the study aims to identify a blueprint for how decision-makers should best go about involving local people in FRM projects across England. Furthermore, it seeks to examine the social context (often neglected in FRM) in which the blueprint would be applied. Flood risk affects communities from across the whole spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds in England and any blueprint for involving local residents would need to be adaptable to these circumstances if it was to be effective.
This is where you come in! Imperial College would like your help in this study. If you have been involved in a Flood Risk Management project, as a local resident, as a volunteer for a charity or in a professional context, then the study would like to learn from your experiences (you must have some direct experience with at least one FRM project or you will not be eligible to take part).
Take part in a 10-15 minute online survey to share your views on local resident involvement in FRM projects and help Imperial College with their research. The survey also provides the option of taking part in a voluntary 20-minute interview about your experiences.
Click on the link to take part in the online survey: https://imperial.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6J61ZLm6yDiJH7L
The study is due to conclude in September and the River Restoration Centre is looking forward to sharing the study’s findings with you in an updated blogpost in the autumn.