Andrew Jepp 10 February 2016

Managing the unmanageable

The recent floods in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire have demonstrated what a devastating effect these events can have on people’s lives. They have also shown community spirit in the best possible light and the willingness of people to help one another through difficult situations. As the floodwater subsides and the rebuilding process begins, it is important to reflect upon local authorities and their role in protecting communities.

According to government figures, a staggering one in six UK properties are at risk of flooding from rivers and seas, or from surface water. Flooding costs the country an estimated £1.1 billion every year and the risks to communities keeps rising.

According to the Global Risks Report 2016, extreme weather events such as flooding are set to become more commonplace and their effects more wide-ranging.

In the UK, this will mean more frequent and more damaging flood events, and as such the demands on local authorities will only increase, with communities turning to councils for support and protection more than ever. With this in mind, it is right to explore how councils can prepare for future incidents and manage the risks posed by flooding.

Whilst predicting the whereabouts and severity of flooding is difficult, long-term planning and risk mitigation strategies can help reduce the impact of flooding incidents. Every extreme weather event provides us with new lessons to learn, but perhaps the overarching lesson from the latest events is that we still cannot adequately plan for extreme weather.

It is strongly suggested that councils have a clear risk strategy and response plan in place for flooding. By setting out risks and appropriate responses in advance, a risk strategy will help councils act quickly in the event of an incident. Despite councils being required to publish their flood risk strategies, the latest study by the NAO found that the vast majority were yet to do so. It is advised that councils check if theirs exists and if not, prepare one as a priority.

It is also very useful for councils to be prepared to offer flood protection advice to their communities in preparing for a flood, and there are a number of useful resources at their disposal. For example, councils could refer local people to the Environment Agency’s (EA) flood maps, which indicate the likelihood of fluvial, surface or groundwater flooding in the local area. It is also advisable to make communities aware of the EA’s three levels of flood alerts. Councils might also point local people to Floodline Warnings Direct, a free government service that sends a direct message when flooding is expected and which areas will be affected.

When flooding does occur, it is best practice to take steps to advise local people and businesses on how to limit damage and reduce disruption. For instance, whilst most people would instinctively try to stop water from entering their property, water should in fact be allowed to enter a property for a flood deeper than one metre, as this will help prevent structural and therefore more significant damage caused by a build-up of water pressure outside.

In our experience, once a property has dried out there are a number of things that can be done to make it more resistant to flooding in the future, such as moving electricals higher up and ensuring water proof sealant and paint are used. However, we are also still learning. Recent floods have filled the water tables, meaning flooding is now created from water leakage from above and below ground.

Local authorities may wish to direct residents to specialist flood surveyors to advise on the most appropriate methods to prevent and protect against floods. As an experienced insurer we have seen first-hand how building-back with future floods in mind can help people save in the long term particularly in remote areas where flood defences are scarcer.

Unfortunately, flooding is becoming common place in our communities, but by demonstrating leadership now, local authorities can help protect their communities from the life altering effects of future flooding and limit the financial burden caused by these events.

Andrew Jepp is director of public services at Zurich Municipal

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