Back in March, I stated the importance of resourcing and equipping local authorities to defend against the risks of flooding, arguing that councils are the most effective and responsive locus of resilience against our increasingly volatile climate.
Since the devastation of Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge earlier this year, the risks posed to our communities by flooding has not diminished. The Environment Agency has predicted up to 59% more precipitation in winters by 2050 and up to a 1.15m rise in sea level by 2100.
I therefore saw with interest the Government’s announcement of a £5.2bn investment package and six-year plan aimed at tackling flooding and coastal erosion. The attention now afforded to the dangers of flooding by the Government is highly welcome, but given the scale of the challenges ahead and the surge in demands on council resources in the context of COVID-19, concerns remain.
As we approach the winter months, our communities face a triple threat: the heightened risk and impact of floods and storms in an increasingly extreme climate; the strains on our income and spending demands that a second spike in COVID-19 could entail; and uncertainty over continuity of resources as we edge towards the end of the Brexit transition period.
So far it is unclear how significant this shift in investment levels will truly be, but with the winter fast approaching and many thousands of homes, families, and communities already at risk from flooding made yet more vulnerable due to the disruptions of COVID-19, it is paramount that the Government announces further details on how it is accounting for this uniquely challenging set of conditions.
In Rotherham we know all too well about the devastating impact flooding can have on communities. Last November, we were hit with one and half times the entire monthly rainfall in just 24 hours. The impact was devastating, flooding 150 homes, 277 businesses, closing 38 major roads and putting our railway station out of action for the best part of a week. Yet none of the newly announced flood defence spending has been allocated to Rotherham, or indeed neighbouring Doncaster where the communities of Fishlake, Bentley, Conisborough and Denaby was the focus of much of the national media attention.
Additionally, decisive action on flooding will only make sense if the climate crisis as a whole is addressed. To truly mitigate its effects, Government initiatives like its six-year flooding and coastal erosion plan must form part of a broader, longer-term strategy for emerging from COVID-19 in an environmentally conscious way, and as part of a long-term conversation with localities and regions.
That is why Solace recently became a signatory to the ‘Blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local level’. As a joint effort from an array of other groups and supporters including the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport, Friends of the Earth, and the Grantham Institute, the Blueprint offers a framework for a conversation with central government on how the recovery from COVID-19 must align with a joined-up, place-based approach to the climate crisis.
With this in mind, it is important the Government steers clear of a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to administering the six-year investment plan for flooding, and instead recognises councils’ unique insight into local communities and circumstances.
The world has changed dramatically in the months following the piece I wrote back in March, but the case for a well-resourced and local response to flooding and other emergencies has only been strengthened.
From stepping up local testing efforts to supporting the most vulnerable members of the community, we have seen time and time again throughout the COVID-19 crisis what local government can do when it is empowered to take the lead locally.
This is just as true as we build the sector’s resilience to flooding and coastal erosion. If the Government can show how this investment plan can safely address the new demands on councils’ resources in the context of COVID-19; is part of a holistic conversation around green recovery and climate action; and sufficiently empowers councils to be responsive to their local situations, then our areas can be truly resilient to the risks to our environment that lie ahead.
Sharon Kemp is Solace spokesperson for environment and climate change, and chief executive of Rotherham MBC