As the Government prepares to set a new direction for managing flood risk in England, with the launch of a new FCERM Policy Statement and the much advertised National FCERM Strategy, it is very welcome that the Government has pledged to invest £5.2 billion on flood and coastal erosion risk management over the term of this parliament. I sincerely hope that the huge sums of money that have been, and continue to be, spent on COVID19 support measures does not change this pledge. Putting it into perspective, the Government borrowed £62 billion in April for the benefit of the 70 million of us on this island and the £5.2 billion spent over six years therefore pales into insignificance.
But what is the most sensible way to spend that £5.2 billion to get the best returns on investment? The FCERM Strategy has three fundamental strands: Climate resilient places, resilience of growth and infrastructure to climate change, and building a nation of climate champions. It’s pretty clear what the common thread is and there are some very easy and immediate actions available to Government which will deliver meaningful progress against these FCERM strategic goals.
Now is the time, in the aftermath of a very costly winter season of flooding, to invest a much larger proportion of the pledged money in much needed wide-scale refurbishment work to get all our rivers, drains, pumps sluices, embankments, etc, back to an excellent standard. Whilst the last couple of decades have been about building new projects to improve the levels of protection provided to people and houses, the majority of the big wins have been achieved and the good results are showing many more people benefiting from those investments. Some money has already been allocated to the Environment Agency for the specific refurbishment of their assets and that is welcome. But it is vital that all authorities receive support to ensure that all flood protection assets are brought up to the same standard. By simple analogy, it is no good replacing a knee joint if the hip joint remains damaged.
Now is the time to benefit from a public sentiment that I believe supports the call for more money being spent on everyday maintenance and management of our river catchments and to do that most efficiently, we need to bring all flood protection assets up to modern, sustainable standards.
And now is the time to invest in people, create employment and inject some pride back into communities where the care of local rivers and waterways not only improves their flood risk and water conveyance management function, but also focuses on general social, environmental and economic improvement too.
Key topics from ADA’s response to the draft National FCERM Strategy
Clear direction from Government is needed to help the Environment Agency broaden their focus beyond people and housing targets, and justify supporting a much wider range of social, economic, and environmental benefits. It is well received that some additional flexibility has been added to the Partnership Funding rules, in order to better take account of the impact of surface water, deprivation, mental health, and further environmental benefits. However, much more still needs to be done to recognise the wider economic benefits across our catchments and I welcome Defra’s continued work in this area. Linked to a refreshed National FCERM Strategy, we must give this work a sense of urgency and the parliamentary time to debate and adjust legislation as necessary.
Britain has purposefully adopted a reactive approach to dealing with flood events versus the proactive approach of other countries such as Australia and the Netherlands. It is acknowledged that by 2050, we could be seeing the kinds of events witnessed over last winter happening every year. And maybe add a few droughts on top as temperatures increase. The costs per extreme event are becoming crippling for both individuals, and nationally with greater emergency response inputs, heading only in an upwards direction. Should we not be starting to think proactively and take action to be more resilient in the face of the inevitable effects of our changing climate? And as also claimed, even if we became completely carbon-zero today, it will take decades before we start seeing the positive effects.
I await with eager anticipation that the updated FCERM Strategy will be bold in its ambitions within that Strategy. Climate change adaptation will not mean simply building our flood defences higher and higher. The key word will be resilience and our ability as a nation to absorb the short-lived anger of natural extremes and learning to cope with those extremes. And where best to start by ensuring that the infrastructure we already have is in top condition, well maintained and well managed. This is not just about the big stuff, but equally the fine detail of road gullies, gravel traps, culverts and our surface water systems. We must also add in attention to natural systems of water management. Gullies, culverts and natural flood management are most often the twigs at the top of the network tree and if they are functioning correctly, they work in perfect harmony with the branches and trunk of that network tree. In water terms, that tree is a catchment, and the whole of that catchment needs to be considered in the round.
It is very challenging that we are today looking at potential water shortages when, just several months ago, we had so much of it. And that is where another chunk of that £5.2 billion could be wisely spent on making the linkages between flood risk and water resource management to the mutual benefit of both. The Water Resources regions are each making progress and I am delighted that ADA is able to support that initiative through our involvement with Water Resources East.
Despite COVID19, Treasury deliberations on FCERM budgets are going on behind the scenes to prepare for the next Comprehensive Spending Review. Water is the basic substance of our economic, social and environmental wellbeing here in the UK and, with partners all aligned, we have a golden opportunity to focus on everyday maintenance and management in a better balanced way with future capital investment.
As well as committing to the wholesale refurbishment and modernisation of our FCERM assets, we do need a long-term settlement for maintenance and revenue spending to allow all the various partners to make efficient plans in carrying out their work over several years. And we certainly need a reversal in the decline of revenue (maintenance) budget allocations which we have seen over the past few years.
Chief Executive, ADA