Britain's floods show how unprepared it is for the climate crisis

As severe floods from a month’s worth of rain in one day claim a life, there is only one way to find a flood strategy that works.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In May this year, the chair of the Environment Agency Emma Howard Boyd warned: “We can’t win a war against water by building away climate change with infinitely high flood defences.”

The agency, which is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to deal with rivers, estuaries, the sea and reservoirs flooding, was launching a consultation on its flood strategy at the time.

It was time to accept that some communities may have to be moved entirely to avoid flood risk, she said, and for damaged homes to be rebuilt in different locations.

The agency expected more intense bursts of rain and continuing coastal erosion, with global temperatures rising between 2C and 4C by 2100 and the need for £1bn annual spending on flood management.

Defra at the time boasted of providing £2.6bn over six years for the problem, but Howard-Boyd called this a “shot in the arm” rather than a long-term solution.

As it stands, the Environment Agency’s consultation is due to publish next spring.

In the meantime, a woman has drowned after being swept away by floodwater in Derbyshire, amid severe floods in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Dozens of people had to spend the night in a shopping centre in Sheffield after downpours flooded surrounding streets, and firefighters had to rescue people who were stranded in a shopping centre in Rotherham by boat.

Why does this keep happening, with flood policy unable to keep up? It was back in the floods of December 2015 that the Environment Agency called for a “complete rethink” of flooding strategy, after all.

“We are moving from known extremes to unknown extremes,” its deputy chief executive David Rooke warned at the time.

One frustration building up over the years is the perceived lack of focus on areas that are already underfunded.

In 2017, a paper for the social democracy journal Renewal warned about floods affecting the UK’s worse-off places after years of cuts.

“It will be the communities linked by only one bridge, with poor roads, with only one shop, dependent on one industry, business or factory, that bear the brunt when the rains come, the harvest fails or the transport links go down,” the author, former Labour adviser Polly Billington, wrote.

“In cities it will be those in poor housing that endure the worst of extreme heat in summer, flash floods and exhausted sewers. Bad design and lack of maintenance mean that architectural assaults on the working class can have long lead-in times.”

Of people who live in areas vulnerable to flooding, she wrote, “these people are not wealthy and often they are now being refused home or business insurance. People who have always struggled will struggle even more as the safety and security of their homes and livelihoods are put under more strain.”

We’ve seen this play out in the UK for years now.

When Tadcaster Bridge collapsed, cutting the town in two, after severe floods over Christmas in 2015, it took over a year to reopen, causing immense frustration to residents and businesses. The leader of Leeds Council called flooding in the area a “preventable disaster”, saying the north had not received “anywhere near the support that we saw going into Somerset” (which flooded in 2014).

Indeed, the following year it emerged that the southeast was to receive five times more funding per head than the north for flood defences, and an investigation by the Press Association revealed in October 2016 that the funding formula for spending taxpayers’ money on flood defences was skewed towards wealthier households and areas.

At the time, Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole warned that this was, “further evidence of how the poorest are hit hardest by floods – something that will only get worse as climate change worsens flooding”.

While the climate crisis brings “unknown extremes” and the cost of flooding becomes ever more costly and unpredictable, what’s for certain is that people feel neglected by policymakers when hit with severe flooding. And there is only one policy response that will ultimately help them. It’s not enough to build smarter homes, higher flood defences, or even to relocate people. The only way is to tackle the root of the problem: cutting emissions faster, wholeheartedly supporting renewable energy, reversing plans for airport expansion, banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars earlier.

At the moment, the government is set to miss its net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 target, and will exceed its carbon budgets for 2023-27 by 5.6 per cent and from 2028-32 by 9.6 per cent.

That slow pace of change will mean the “war on water” is one that Britain will continue to lose.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.