Flood resilience: Is Britain out of its depth?

By Emily Byrne, Marketing Executive at YUDU 

Header Image by Gemma Smith, Graphic Designer at YUDU

Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge are nature’s reminder of the impending threat posed by climate change. They highlight the need to accommodate for flood resilience in our buildings’ architecture and design and through emergency planning as we as we face a new climate reality. With the River Severn bursting and this February recording as one of the wettest months in decades the tides aren’t set to change anytime soon.

Are the problems climate change presents too ‘big and scary’ for organisations to tackle? Do we distrust the experts providing information? If we fail to take the flooding threat caused by climate change seriously, we could be putting ourselves majorly at risk.

Notably, the Government have been more vigilant in the way they plan financially for future floods this week. In the Budget, the Chancellor has ensured steps are taken to support those affected by the winter floods, providing 120 million to repair flood defences. Looking to the long-term, the Government will invest 5.2 billion from 2012 on a six-year investment programme focusing on flood defences. It is reassuring to see that progress is being made. However, there is still a long way to go.

News flash: Flash floods await us?

Let’s start with our city. As discovered by the Urban Design Group’s Thames Estuary Project, we are facing a potential rise of the Thames’ water levels by 5%. Currently, the Thames Barrier is not built to withstand such an increase in water volume. If nothing is done in the next few decades it will inevitably flood, causing devastation to the city.

“With water causing an average of £1.4 billion of damage each year to UK businesses and households, it’s evident that prevention measures are simply inadequate. 21st century architecture must be approached from a position of enabling us to ‘live with water’”. This statement from Architect’s Journal is both poignant and thought-provoking – forcing us to reimagine London surrounded and submerged by water. Striking images of frantically jumping on a boat instead of the tube to get to a meeting spring to mind.

Potential flooding will be worsened by hard landscaping, meaning there is nowhere for the anticipated influx of water to escape from. Architects and developers look to cut costs and corners by building with the next decade in mind. They should be building in light of the next thirty years. What if important documentation, surgical equipment or essential IT and computing software was stored on one of the first few floors of one of these corporation’s buildings? Huge sectors of business would be wiped out.

London.gov’s report illustrates the worst-case scenario. “Maybe by 2050 nobody will be able to come into London. In terms of flood risk, the most risk to most people is surface water. People don’t see that until it’s coming through their kitchen door. There seems to be a perception London is safe from fluvial flood risk. The Thames Barrier doesn’t really help. Flooding could come as a big surprise.”

Authorities Leave Locals Behind

Recent flooding in Doncaster and Nottinghamshire ca emphasises the lack of aggressive flood-resilient plans made by local authorities, councils and wider governmental agencies like the Environment Agency itself. In Doncaster, Fishlake, 229 properties were affected whilst 1,500 businesses and properties across Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, South Yorkshire, Leicestershire & Warwickshire have been devastated since 7 November 2019.

North Wheatley Primary school in Battleslaw was devastated by flood damage, even after the school hall was raised by steps after outbreaks in 2007 and 2008. Has recent political tension meant that we are distracted from the issues that matter most?

“I know Brexit is quite important,” one pupil said, “but I really think the government needs to do more about climate change.”

Major flooding has undeniably caused social disparity and unrest in both Nottinghamshire and Doncaster as highlighted by interviews with residents conducted by The Guardian and The Observer.

“You don’t have to be a hydrologist to see what’s happened,” states local resident, Paul Smith. Sheffield built flood defences in 2015-16. They spent about £20m protecting the lower Don. So, the water has nowhere to go than the next place, Rotherham and then Doncaster.”

On the morning of Friday 14th February, – the banks of the River Don broke, resulting in flood water devastating Doncaster.

“They brought the sandbags maybe four or five hours after the street had been flooded,” a disgruntled Paul Smith added. Local governments are not responding to flood outbreaks aggressively or urgently enough.

Simon Greaves believes small towns such as Worksop are deemed less important to protect than bigger, wealthier conurbations, such as Sheffield. “In terms of flood defence funding, we don’t have the gross value added of Sheffield, we don’t have the million-pound properties or businesses. It doesn’t make sense if you are in a flood-damaged property in Worksop, where you were flooded in 2007 and again now and you are thinking: this is a house that I am never going to be able to sell.”

People based in towns and villages on flood plains live in constant fear of becoming trapped in a home they cannot sell. Their entire livelihood: job and home are at risk. It becomes clear that many people in flooded areas are hit twice: first by the flood and then by insurance companies unwilling to insure them. Insurance companies put their premiums prohibitively high to discourage people from seeking cover.

No one seems to have insurance in Bentley. “One resident says that £1,200 a year was the lowest quote he got for insurance after the 2007 flood. That’s over £14,000. That’s more than he lost in this one.” Perhaps, the above highlights why residents of areas which are regularly hit by flood are 5% more likely to develop depression.

Notably, the floods that hit England last week have made life a lot more difficult for many people who didn’t have it easy in the first place. Why is it that we ignore the natural effects of climate change to such an extent?

A possible solution may lie within the Environmental Agency’s Flood Warning System and cell-broadcasting trials, run in alliance with Fujitsu, EE and the University of Hull. The system has thus far issued around 2 million messages, however was arguably of no use to the residents of Worksop and Fishlake, whose communities were devastated yet again.

Staying afloat: Crisis Management and Open Data Solutions

 Surely in the 21st century we should make the most of our wide range of digital technologies when combatting to combat the effects of future flooding. We should build in light of our discoveries. Analysing data and information about urban and natural systems are vital inputs to the urban design process if we are aiming to create resilient cities and towns.

Flooding threats call for businesses to establish crisis management and emergency plans, coupled with a need for business resilience and continuity plans. Focus needs to be on engaging with businesses, strong leadership, consistency across boroughs and longer-term planning. Architect’s Journal highlight “Floods in the UK have caused over £5 billion in damage since the previous record floods of 2015, yet the ways we deal with them are still the same.”

There is a desperate need to shift from a mentality of disaster recovery to disaster prevention. This premise is highlighted by Richard Coutts and Matt Sharman-Hayles. “Back in September, we attended ‘The Architecture of Emergency’ conference at the Barbican, a meeting of London-based architects to discuss the climate emergency. But even though the event was advertised with an image of London underwater, flooding and increased flood risk from climate change was not mentioned once.” A national theatre’s event, which advertised flood resilience, failed to mention tackling the cause of the problem once.

It’s essential to determine what ‘ATPs’, or ‘adaption tipping points’ need to be applied to our city’s buildings and architecture. Working with ATPs raises the vulnerabilities of our buildings and architecture centre stage in developing an adaptation strategy.

There is notably no policy in place to minimise the effects of potential flood for existing built up areas. Corporations tends to individually adapt their assets in response to flood disaster, rather than as a planned damage precaution.

In solution, “Real-time data of current usage patterns, weather conditions, current events and commodity prices” should be analysed in order to build in account of climate change. GPS surveying, satellite imagery, sensors and mobile phones provide new opportunities to present detailed geographic and demographic profiles of spaces. However, it’s worth considering that “while open data and transparency may be the norm for some, restrictions, censorship and concerns about privacy are the reality for others.”

 In at the deep end?

 We think of floods in a different way to how we think of fires. The latter may be created through malice or negligence. But a flood we see as more like an act of God. Are we reluctant to protect ourselves against that which we can’t control the arrival of?

Many are building for the next decade only, forgetting that by 2050, the effects of climate change will be prominent in our city and society. Corporations, local authorities, environmental agencies, governments and developers should consider the analysis of open data. Effective Crisis Management plans must be put in place – or else these organisations might just get an unwelcome surprise.

Many questions are left unanswered, concerning how buildings would be affected if the Thames’ water level rises by an anticipated 5%. We must target developers, architects, buildings and large corporations and aim to change their nonchalant attitudes.

Arguably towns on flood plains are hit harder, first by severe damage caused by lack of planning by local authorities and agencies and then by the lack of support provided by insurance companies.

Areas like Doncaster and Nottinghamshire are experiencing major societal unrest, with residents realising that areas of economic growth receive more attention when it comes to planning and crisis management when flood hits.

The Government’s Budget and the money it is investing towards flood prevention and fixing the damage caused by recent floods shows us there is hope, certainly for the next six years. Arguably, businesses, corporations and local authorities need to adopt this same sense of urgency. After all, climate change isn’t something that is going to go away.

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