The heavy rain and thunderstorms we so often experience in the UK are an unwelcome reminder of how susceptible much of the country is to flooding.
Between November 2019 and February 2020, heavy winter rainfall caused flash floods and rivers to burst their banks across much of Yorkshire and the Midlands. In May 2018, Birmingham received the equivalent of a month’s rainfall on a single day at the end of the month. The resulting floods caused school closures that lasted well into June. The wet weather also resulted in serious disruption in Kent, East Anglia and Greater Manchester.
A growing risk of disruption
Experts believe that the risk of flooding has increased considerably over recent decades, and that matters are only likely to get worse in the years ahead.
Climate change is thought to be responsible for a greater incidence of extreme weather events, such as storms and periods of extremely heavy rainfall, while the way British towns and cities have been developed – with much natural drainage having been replaced by concrete and tarmac – has meant that the impact of this kind of weather, for example the risk of flash-flooding, is far more damaging than in the past.
Research published by Newcastle University earlier this year suggests that the British Isles will be the part of Europe that is affected most dramatically by flooding in the second half of this century: the study has found that half of cities in the UK and Ireland could see at least a 50% increase in peak river flows.
Addressing the insurance problem
Serious floods, especially during the winter, seem to have become a fact of life in the UK. The worst of them, for example Boscastle in Cornwall in 2004, Cockermouth in Cumbria in 2009, and the Somerset Levels in 2013-14, caused billions of pounds worth of damage while also displacing thousands of families – in some cases for more than a year – and even causing loss of life.
The growing flood risk has created particular problems for the insurance industry, as well as homeowners and businesses in areas deemed most likely to be affected by extreme weather.
Over recent years, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has been putting pressure on the government to ensure that the UK’s flood defences and general approach to preparing for extreme weather are at an adequate level. Between them, the government and the ABI have developed a scheme known as Flood Re which was launched two years ago and which is designed to help the people and companies who are finding it increasingly difficult to insure their homes against wet weather.
Flood Re works by agreeing to take on much of the risk of providing cover to such customers from individual insurers and it means that the policies these companies offer to higher-risk customers should be more affordable.
A more resilient landscape
But while schemes like Flood Re can help cut the cost of insurance, there is growing recognition of the importance of taking action to reduce the impact of heavy rainfall. While improving urban drainage facilities and bolstering river defences can clearly play an important part, other strategies aim to reduce the impact of flooding at its source – specifically, by slowing the speed at which rainfall on higher ground flows into Britain’s rivers and waterways.
Since 2015, researchers at Exeter University have been running a five-year project which has seen wild beavers reintroduced to locations in Devon to see the effects the species can have on water quality, soil erosion and a reduction in downstream flooding risk.
Beavers’ dams have been shown to help keep pollutants out of rivers, and they also work to reduce floodwater peaks after periods of heavy rain. Professor Richard Brazier, who has led the Exeter University research team, has just won the Pride of Devon Environment Award for his work.
Following on from the Devon research, at the end of 2017 the Forestry Commission announced plans to release beavers into the Forest of Dean – partly in order to help alleviate the flood risk faced by the village of Lydbrook in Gloucestershire. A government spokesperson said: “Scientists believe the beavers may be able to hold back enough water to help with flood alleviation for Lydbrook by quickly constructing natural dam structures and creating new habitat.”
Additional flood-management schemes
In the 25 Year Environment Plan published by the government earlier in 2018, ministers pointed out that, without any further investment in flood defences in the UK, the number of properties facing a high risk of flooding could rise from 750,000 today to almost 1.3 million over the next 50 years.
The government has committed to invest £2.6 billion in over 1,500 flood-defence projects between 2015 and 2021. But the Department for the Environment now says it wants to increase the use of natural flood management solutions, and is committing £15 million to doing so over the next three years. New measures include tree planting, restoring river banks, the creation of small-scale dams and projects to store water temporarily on open land.
In a recent speech, Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said: “The dawning of more innovative natural flood management schemes is a perfect example of how the individual objectives of the 25-year plan join together to make a greater whole.”