The legacy of Storm Desmond

The record-breaking rainfall associated with Storm Desmond in December 2015 caused severe disruption flooding 5,200 homes across Lancashire and Cumbria. Major roads across the north of England and Scotland were flooded and there was major disruption to rail and air services. 43,000 homes across north-east England were left without power and on 5 December 61,000 homes in Lancaster lost power when an electrical substation was flooded.

Communities across the UK suffered the impacts of Storm Desmond throughout December 2015 and for many months after. Some people were out of their homes for over a year.

“People’s lives were turned upside down, and while the spirit of Cumbria shone through in the recovery effort, the reality is many still live in fear that there are darker days to come.” – The News and Star

Three years on and can we say that we are any more resilient to the potential impacts of severe rainfall?

Resilient – able to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened; hardy, irrepressible, quick to recover; ability to ‘bounce back’. – Cambridge dictionary

JBA has experienced first-hand the investment and effort going into the protection of homes from flooding by government and its agencies. Our support to Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council in the immediate aftermath of Desmond and the soon following Storm Eva being an example.

Read more about this project in our blog – Developing a Local Flood Risk Management Strategy for the Calder Valley

Flood risk management

Our full range of experience and expertise in flood risk management covers modelling, appraisal, design, construction, environmental management and more. It is supporting the acceleration identification, appraisal, development and delivery of flood risk management schemes within the Environment Agency’s flood and coastal erosion risk management capital investment programme.

By 2021, £2.3 billion will have been spent reducing the flood risk to over 300,000 homes within England.

Government funding

Delivery of this programme however is not without its challenges. A number of schemes on the programme are characterised by low benefit-cost ratios or struggle to generate sufficient investment contributions as required under partnership funding rules, in order to progress.

Whilst the provision of a budget for capital expenditure over a six-year period has presented opportunity for significant efficiencies to be made, additional government funding announced this year has in part been needed to address increasing costs of capital delivery.

Of note, the current cost-benefit approach to prioritising schemes for investment is under scrutiny. The National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), published in July of this year, concluded that the current approach ‘is not a sustainable basis for decision-making’ as properties at risk are ‘seldom abandoned or adapted to cope with the risk, so people are left to live with the risk’.

Flood resilience

The recommendation for a national strategy that leads to specific standards of resilience across the whole of the country was made. This would be a new direction for flood risk management and would require funding for flood risk management to be increased significantly over the coming decades. But, is additional funding and an approach to flood management based on ‘build them big and build them high’ sustainable?

Storm Desmond evidenced that we cannot ‘defend’ against flooding and it brought terms such as ‘residual risk’ and the concept of ‘flood resilience’ to the fore of our thinking.

Resilience, perhaps as a direct result of the impacts of the events of December 2015, is a common and reoccurring theme across the assemblage of policies and plans related to climate change and flooding that have been published or initiated in the UK since Storm Desmond.

This is to be welcomed. UK flood managers are often encouraged to look internationally for best practice, but this home-grown emphasis on resilience is a pleasing antidote to the large flood defence capital scheme approaches. Advocated traditionally at least, in the Netherlands and United States, which are costly, have limited effectiveness in the long term and are arguably inequitable and socially divisive since they protect the few (all be it to a high standard), leaving the many to remain at risk.

This nuance shift in UK policy arising since and perhaps as a consequence of Desmond, is evidenced for example by the NIA where it is recommended ‘that a long-term strategy to deliver a nationwide standard of flood resilience by 2050 should be put in place.’ Publication of the new UK climate projections – UKCP18 – highlighted how ‘UK climate science, can provide us with more robust predictions that can assist in resilience planning across the UK.’

Read more in our news story – UK Climate Projections: a catalyst for action.

Analysing Storm Desmond

Our work with the JBA Trust and Zurich analysed the nature of Storm Desmond, the impacts from flooding and the response to the event. The report identified how better communication of flood hazard and flood risk to provide early warning services to communities and infrastructure operators could increase resilience.

It also showed that there is a need to apply and operationalise integrated flood risk management more effectively, since flood defences, at some point in time will be either breached or over-topped, in order to be more resilient.

Read the full report on the JBA Trust website.

Flood interventions

Our innovative work on initiatives are examples of the new tool box of flood interventions available to increase resilience. Flood Foresight is a globally-scalable flood forecasting system which provides forecasts of flood inundation footprints, depths and flood impacts in real-time. Where catchment scale approaches manage residual flood risk

Visit our natural flood management web page for more information.

We need to go further, and a fundamental shift in our approach to existing communities and creation of new settlements is needed as climate change influences the frequency and severity of flooding. Coastal communities are increasingly at risk from rising sea levels and erosion, while inland towns and homes are under threat from intense rainstorms.

We need then to continue to invest in the understanding, prediction and warning of flooding. What is hoped to be a temporary starvation in investment in this area, as government funds are channelled almost exclusively to deliver capital schemes by 2021, must be reversed.

Increasingly, we require better understanding of the nature of flood risk, in order to better design our communities to manage and reduce the risk to people, property and infrastructure. This will inform land use and spatial planning to become truly resilient.

Climate change – time for action!

We await publication of the new national FCERM strategy, Government’s response to the NIA, and the Defra policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion, all to be published in 2019 to see how far resilience has permeated. Living with flood risk must be at the heart of a radical shift in flood management.

Read Rachel Brisley’s, Head of Policy, Strategy and Research, blog on the subject.

Resilience maintains the essential functions of organisations, businesses, and communities during flood events. Disasters are not only caused by extreme weather, they’re also caused by vulnerability – reduce that vulnerability and the impacts to the event will be lessened.

Reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience requires investment. Not just in flood defence construction but also in our understanding, prediction, and communication of flooding, the provision of effective tools to allow communities at risk to help themselves, and in the planning and design of our communities. This should include normalising the provision of effective property flood resilience measures as part of the response.

If this is delivered, then there will have been positive lessons learned and a lasting legacy from the events of December 2015 and the impacts of Storm Desmond.

Want to know more?

Email Marc Pinnell or visit our flood and water management web pages for more information.

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