Louise Hanson: Act now to avert further floods of misery in future

YORK, Hull, Selby, Scarborough, Whitby and Goole to name but a few. The roll call of towns across Yorkshire hit by flooding in recent years makes for depressing reading.

Last winter, areas across the country were hit by heavy rainfall and in particular, the biggest tidal surge since 1953 battered the East Coast.

In Yorkshire and the Humber alone, around 1,100 properties and 7,000 hectares of agricultural land suffered from the 2013 tidal surge.

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“Flood water is a silent, indiscriminate burglar that takes no prisoners, and doesn’t care whether its victims are the young, old, disabled, rich or poor. It seems to malevolently wreck the lives of thousands of people, year in, year out, says Mary Dhonau, chief executive of the Know Your Flood Risk Campaign, whose home has been flooded several times.

As many households in the region know, flooding badly damages properties, which can wreck people’s lives and leave businesses unable to trade for many months.

This is why we have launched our Flood Free Homes campaign to ensure that by 2025, no home has to go through the trauma that homes in Yorkshire and the Humber did last year.

This campaign has wide-ranging support from the Friends of the Earth, Know your Flood Risk, the National Flood Forum, BRE Centre for Resilience, and the Property Care Association’s Flood Protection Group.

With around a 10 per cent chance of a catastrophic flood happening in England within the next two decades, causing in excess of £10bn in damage, we need to act now to prevent the worst from happening.

Such a flood would cause 10 times more flood damage the combined impact of the tidal surge and storms across the winter of 2013/14, whose effects we are still suffering. This cannot be ignored.

Flooding is the greatest natural threat the UK faces, yet the severity is not recognised. The Government needs to act to protect businesses and communities, but real terms spending on flood defences has been declining since 2010. 

In December last year, the Government promised £266m of flood defence investment to homes in Yorkshire as part of a £2.3bn flood defence programme.

However, as North Yorkshire MP Anne McIntosh, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, has said the amount spent on maintaining flood defences is at a “bare minimum” to look after overworked flood defences which just held in parts of Yorkshire last winter. There is no long term, co-ordinated approach to flood defence spending and funding is announced haphazardly.

The Flood Free Homes campaign recognises that the UK needs more flood defences to be built and maintained where they are needed most; robust controls about where we build our homes and businesses, and long-term, ambitious solutions created that get to the heart of the problem rather than tinkering around the edges.

Plenty of political and media attention has been given to places such as Hebden Bridge and Todmorden when floods have hit in previous years, but this must be a priority even when the cameras have stopped rolling.

We are calling for £1bn per year to be spent on managing flood risk by 2025, to keep pace with climate change, and spending must be seen as a vital part of our national interest by all future governments, regardless of limited spending envelopes.

The need for sustained, ambitious and targeted investment in the building and maintenance of flood defences has never been more important, as our climate is changing and the impacts are being felt with rising sea levels rising and increasing rainfall.

Alongside this, it is imperative that we have a sensible approach to building new homes which is why we need a zero tolerance of inappropriate new developments in areas at risk of flooding.

Despite existing planning laws, 20,000 new properties are built on flood risk areas each year, 4,000 a year in areas of significant flood risk.

Development is necessary to meet the demand for housing and infrastructure on which our economy depends, and the National Housing Federation recently argued that there is a need for some 1,506 new affordable homes in rural Yorkshire.

However, true sustainable development means not building in areas that are at significant risk of flooding.

The management of land and water in our country needs to become central to government decision-making, whoever is in power. Currently, the spending on flood defence can get caught up in politics and the long term goals for flood risk management are not clear. There is a need to set cross-party ambitious long-term goals, to co-ordinate national and local strategies and to consider new solutions.

Several Yorkshire MPs representing more than 420,000 constituents, and a number of prospective parliamentary candidates have already signed up to support the Flood Free Homes campaign. We need to act now to protect our homes and businesses – anything less is not enough for the people and communities devastated by the impacts of flooding.

• Louise Hanson is Director of Advocacy at the Association of British Insurers. Visit the campaign website www.floodfreehomes.org.uk or the Twitter feed @FloodFreeHomes