Flood investment and vulnerable communities

Posted on by Katherine Knox

Flooded community

Katherine Knox, Programme Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says that more needs to be done to increase flood resilience, particularly where communities are more vulnerable due to their wider social, economic or environmental context.

This month marks ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Closer to home, the more recent winter floods of 2013/14 continue to have repercussions, with some Somerset residents not yet back in their homes following the extensive damage due to prolonged flooding in the Somerset Levels.

While the devastation caused by extreme weather hit the headlines initially in both cases, the longer term implications are less in the spotlight. However in both cases, the damage caused raises questions over how investment is prioritised to protect communities from extreme weather.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been considering the relationship between flood investment and communities that may be most disadvantaged by flooding in England due to experiencing both high exposure to flood risks and also high social vulnerability.

Vulnerability is caused by a range of personal, social and environmental factors. The communities of most concern include:

  • those that may be more sensitive to the impacts of flooding, such as older people or people in poor health,
  • those who face increased exposure due to their built or natural environment, such as living in basement flats or areas with no green space to absorb surface water run off
  • or those who will struggle more to cope when floods occur, for example due to being on low incomes and therefore being less likely to have flood insurance.

JRF’s research suggests we need to do more to consider social vulnerability to flooding in national flood investment and wider policy decisions. Our recent report, Targeting flood investment and policy to minimise disadvantage shows that there is no particular alignment between planned flood investment for 2015-21 and the extent of flood disadvantage in a local authority. It found:

  • 249 most flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods across 104 of the 326 local authority districts and unitaries in England;
  • Only 100 of the 1,493 schemes in the investment pipeline were in these most flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods;
  • The average planned expenditure per local authority per household protected was £6,610, but areas with fewer flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods were in some cases due to receive substantially higher spending than those with a greater number;
  • Almost half (47.8%) or £2bn of total planned investment is for local authorities with no neighbourhoods at significant flood disadvantage (ie none of their neighbourhoods have both high exposure and high social vulnerability).

The JRF is recommending that the Government should review its current approach to flood investment to consider whether issues of social vulnerability or wider deprivation are being adequately addressed, and whether a minimum standard of protection is needed for society, as is the case in the Netherlands.

With climate change likely to add to the risks of flooding in the future, there are also concerns about how policy can respond to this. The recent Long Term Investment Scenarios from the Environment Agency suggest that even if the optimal cost/benefit approach is followed there are likely to be over 250,000 properties at risk of flooding in the 2060s, the majority of which are homes.

The JRF is concerned that an investment approach solely based on costs/benefit considerations may be overlooking the implications of flooding for more vulnerable communities and the longer term impacts and costs to the state and society (for example due to displacement, rehousing or health and social care consequences).

Solutions in particular will need to be considered for the households that may remain at significant flood risk in future despite current investment plans, bearing in mind that the Flood Re scheme, which puts in place measures to support affordable flood insurance for high risk households from 2016, is only a short term transitional arrangement towards market pricing. During the period of its operation, more needs to be done to increase flood resilience in areas at high risk of flooding, particularly where communities are more vulnerable due to their wider social, economic or environmental context.

For more information about this, or about our other work on climate change and communities, please contact Katharine Knox, katharine.knox@jrf.org.uk.

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