Local community involvement in Flood Risk Management in England

Guest blog - Tom Harrison, MSc

Results: How should local residents be involved in managing flood risk?

According to the Environment Agency (EA), over 5.2 million homes and properties in England are at risk of flooding and flood risk is projected to rise throughout the 21st century. This is due to: climate change (making heavy rainfall events more common), increased building in the flood plain, population growth (and urbanisation) and land use change. The traditional approach to flood risk management (FRM) has advocated grey infrastructure to hold back floodwater with manmade barriers. But increasing flood risk and serious flood events in recent years have called for the advent of more holistic solutions to flooding. Using Natural Flood Management (NFM) solutions, such as leaky dams or tree planting, to “slow the flow” and store water upstream, “flattens the curve” of floodwater downstream. NFM solutions therefore complement existing grey infrastructure in urban areas, extending its lifespan. Within the Flood Risk Management (FRM) sector, it is widely acknowledged community cooperation is required to implement small-scale NFM solutions effectively. However, the extent to which local communities should be involved in FRM in their local areas is not yet well enough understood. A recent study at Imperial College has focused on the identification of a framework for optimum local resident involvement in FRM in England.

The study’s methods and findings

The study at Imperial College carried out a nationwide survey of stakeholders in Flood Risk Management (FRM) projects and collected 72 complete responses from a range of stakeholders, including: local residents and employees of the EA, local councils and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). In-depth video interviews were then carried out with 20 of these participants. The results of the study found that 98% of respondents viewed community involvement in FRM as important. Findings also indicated that as community involvement in FRM deepens, the benefits can increase and have a transformative impact on individual projects. Community involvement was shown to have the capability to improve FRM projects’ design, implementation, cost-effectiveness and longevity. However, although there is a growing portfolio of FRM projects that display the meaningful involvement of communities in FRM, the study by Imperial College found that these instances of high community involvement are not being produced as a result of the current framework in place. On the contrary, institutional barriers must often overcome for meaningful community involvement in FRM projects in England to succeed. Successful community involvement in FRM was found mostly to be enabled by extremely capable communities with high risk awareness and/or by partner support (often in the form of NGOs).

There is already an institutional framework in place to ensure community involvement in FRM and water management in England – the catchment-based approach (CaBA). The catchment-based approach, adopted by Defra (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has overall responsibility for flood risk policy in England) in 2013. In CaBA, water should be managed at a catchment level (the whole river basin should be considered in any project) through an inclusive approach that directly involves local communities. CaBA may well be working effectively in other aspects of water management in England, however the study’s findings showed that, within FRM, CaBA’s implementation by the EA is not allowing or enabling the systemic involvement of communities in managing their own flood risk. The instances of successful community involvement in FRM that exist seem to overwhelmingly occur in the presence of extremely capable communities and/or with NGO support. Some instances occur in the presence of EA or local council support, if these organisations are represented by an employee who is well-trusted by the community and who independently takes an inclusive approach to FRM. In other words, the current institutional framework is having to be overcome to involve local communities in FRM and it is not systematically producing inclusive projects, as should be the case under CaBA.

In England, communities are not entitled to a minimum standard of flood protection; flood defences are instead justified following a cost-benefit analysis, where defences are approved if they protect an area with a high enough aggregate value, relative to the cost of the defences. This means that not all at-risk communities are guaranteed adequate flood protection. The study at Imperial College highlights the variable capacities of at-risk communities to take part in or initiate FRM projects in England. Flood risk is distributed unevenly in England but is borne relatively evenly by rich and poor communities alike (with slightly more risk being borne by deprived communities). However, the current framework does not provide adequate support to communities to initiate or ensure their involvement in FRM. The increased ability of more privileged communities to self-mobilise and the uneven distribution of NGO capacity in England means that the current implementation of CaBA is likely to produce environmental inequality, where more affluent communities are more likely to initiate or ensure their involvement in FRM projects than deprived communities. It also means that, as flood risk increases in the future (as projected), there may be inadequate community involvement to manage flood risk effectively or sustainably. Therefore, institutional reform (to the implementation of CaBA by the Environment Agency) is required to ensure that all communities have equitable access to involvement in managing their own flood risk, as flood risk increases in England in the coming decades.

The study’s recommendations

The reform of CaBA, to enable the involvement of local communities in managing their own flood risk, falls under the responsibility of the EA, England’s national flood authority. Imperial College’s study recommends that the EA take measures to ensure CaBA is implemented more effectively and more consistently across England and in a way that is adaptable to the needs of different communities, which have different capacities and motivations for involvement in FRM. To do this, the EA should recruit communications specialists to develop online guidance for communities on how to get involved in or initiate FRM projects, by setting up a Flood Action Group (FAG) and contacting the relevant flood authority. FRM can be a convoluted process and the current lack of available guidance can make FRM inaccessible to many, except for the most capable and determined communities. The EA should also develop a framework to ensure all communities have adequate support, for their involvement in the FRM process, from key partners including NGOs, local councils or the EA. The EA should also develop practical guidelines for these partners to facilitate community involvement in projects. These guidelines should aim to provide equal opportunities to all communities for involvement in FRM, whilst standardising how partners adapt their approach to the needs of the community. Finally, the EA should look to increase its recruitment of staff specialising in community engagement. The EA’s historical approach of centralised decision-making has produced a lag in its move towards grass-roots engagement. CaBA requires EA staff whose roles are dedicated to involving communities in FRM, to ensure England takes a sustainable approach to manging flood risk in the 21st century.

The EA’s strategy from 2021-27

In July 2020, the EA released their up-to-date ‘National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England’, known as the FCERM. The FCERM outlines the EA’s national strategy for managing flood risk from 2021-2027. The study by Imperial College assessed the FCERM’s strategy (and other up-to-date policy and strategy documents published by the EA and Defra), in relation to community involvement in FRM, and compared EA strategy against the required strategy that the study identified independently (outlined in the previous paragraph). The study states that the EA acknowledges (in the FCERM) the need for greater community in FRM as flood risk increases into the 21st century. However, ultimately the study determined that the EA’s proposed national FRM strategy for 2021-27 neither sufficiently recognises the current substandard implementation of CaBA, nor makes the necessary tangible changes to enable more effective and consistent community involvement in FRM in England.

The study’s recommendations in light of the EA’s strategy announcement

In the absence of adequate reform, to systematically enable communities to be involved in FRM projects, the study from Imperial College recommends that NGOs and communities (and local councils where appropriate) continue to collaborate and share best practice on community involvement in FRM projects. These stakeholders should also seek to develop the channels through which they share best practice, formalising and centralising forums in which to do so if appropriate. The study also recommends that the academic community takes part in community FRM projects, so it can continue to build the evidence base for the positive potential of community involvement in FRM projects, so as to build a powerful case for institutional reform.



Doubtless the summary masks a number of detailed points worthy of mention. I fully support the recommendations and have the following comments:
The EA has moved to a centralised management structure that limits local engagement.
Communications specialists rarely fully understand the issue; better to train those who do
Major floods are beyond the capacity of individuals and often local communities to cope. A civil response capability is essential.
Flooding cannot be totally avoided; people, property, infrastructure and systems need to be made more resilient. This wil have benefits for other emergencies also.

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