Recent floods in England have been described as unprecedented or even “biblical” events, often with the misguided assumption that they were unavoidable or unpredictable. That is not the case. England’s development practice has built more than 300,000 homes in high flood risk areas over the past decade. In this sense, the flood risk has been created instead of being reduced by the planning system.

The flooding in northern England was extensive. 500 homes flooded and more than 1,000 properties evacuated in Doncaster, including major transport disruption across several counties. Subsequent media coverage did highlight the many ways that flooding can be stopped, these include flood walls, river embankments, demountable flood barriers or dredging (the benefits of which are highly debatable). The overarching message was that these events are unpredictable and unprecedented, and the only way to properly deal with them is to invest millions in large physical infrastructure.

While these are helpful suggestions, they only address part of the problem. There is another root cause of flooding that appears not to get so much airtime, namely the role of a fractured planning system that still enables developers to build homes in high flood risk areas.

Urban planning in England is highly regulated and has often been accused of constraining development or in some cases stymieing private sector investments. A 2006 government policy statement attempted to direct development away from areas at highest risk – in simple terms, the intention was to promote building appropriate things in appropriate locations.

However, in 2012, the then coalition government published a new National Planning Policy Framework for England, which replaced existing policy and meant there was no longer clear guidance to prevent building in flood plains. To complicate matters further, the Growth and Infrastructure Act in 2013 released large areas of greenfield land for development. The act effectively gave developers a right to submit major planning applications directly to central government and thus proposals and decisions could evade not only communities but also local planning authorities.

As a result of these legislative changes, there is now a better chance of vulnerable homes being built in flood-prone areas. So how has this policy landscape impacted the number of homes/apartments (typically referred to as “dwellings” in government data) being build in flood risk areas?

Since 1989, the average proportion of new dwellings built in areas of high flood risk has fluctuated annually between 7% and 11%. Some regions such as London, Yorkshire and Humber, and the East Midlands regularly surpassing these averages. This adds up to more than 300,000 new homes being built since 1989 that are at risk of flooding.

Over this period, the continued “free-market” development of flood plains in England has had an unexpected effect. Developers have increasingly been using flood plains to build social housing for low-income families, homes for the elderly/disabled as well as schools and hospitals. One 2009 study identified 2,374 schools and 89 hospitals in flood-prone areas of England. Planning policy has thus caused some of the most vulnerable members of society to occupy highly flood-prone areas.

Urban areas have been creating flood risk. This is largely due to the government’s focus on making land – low cost, flood-prone and available for development.

Therefore, when considering “extreme” flood events and the highly expensive defence and protection solutions, we should not lose sight of how government policies have consistently created more risk – in England, at least. To see how different things could be, just compare England to Scotland. North of the border, flood policy is controlled separately by the devolved government, which tends to deal with the risk rather better.

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