Flood Resilience

New directions in recovery

LGiU researcher Andrew Walker looks at the role councils play in helping communities recovering from floods

The floods that hit towards the end of 2015 and the first weeks of 2016 parts of the UK were some of the worst in living memory.

Storm Desmond hit in early December, while storms Eva and Frank followed soon after, hitting Lancashire, Cumbria, and Yorkshire. Some areas suffered particularly bad luck. Glenridding in Cumbria was flooded for the fourth time after Storm Jonas arrived in late January.

There was enormous media attention devoted to those hard hit areas in the immediate aftermath. News reporters, TV cameras, ministers and prime ministers all made an appearance.

But the real impact will be felt long after the cameras leave and the last sand bags have been cleared away. Local government is there at the front line throughout, working with hard hit communities to help them get back on track.

The recovery process is a long one, but it starts almost immediately

48 hours after a flood, responsibility is signed over to the lead local flooding authority to manage the recovery phase. This phase can continue for 18 months to 2 years.

7,000 homes were flooded in West Yorkshire, most of which were in Calderdale. "Lots of circumstances conspired to make the effects so devastating", says John Lamb, Interim Director and Head of Highways and Engineering at Calderdale Council. Four weeks after the events, there was still no food in many of the shops, as well as no ATMs, and no mobile connection for around a week in some places.

Citizens require a lot from their councils after a flood. They are expected to provide shelter for those made homeless, share information about the support that is available, repair roads and work hand in hand with the emergency services. In the longer term, they are responsible for planning, housing and social care, which can all be adversely affected.

After the flood, the council is on the front line, as well as providing a vital link between communities and central government. There has been a widespread feeling in past that DEFRA tends to look out for those areas that are shouting loudest, and send support in their direction. Following the most recent floods, John Lamb made sure that Calderdale got the attention it needed from government. They put together a concerted media strategy to raise awareness at the national level, and good lines of communication were opened with government. There was a similar story in Cumbria, where Rory Stewart, the flooding minister, chairs the Cumbria Flood Partnership, which has put together a 25-year contingency plan.

Central government attention is one thing, but finances and resources are what's really needed. There are numerous central government pots, which are dispensed to communities following a flood, including business rate and council tax relief schemes, the Belwin scheme for acute relief, and so on. There is also an initial £500 that goes to individual homes and businesses, and the government later released £5,000 as part of a ring-fenced resilience fund.

Local councils oversee the dispersal of these funding streams to households and businesses that need them in the aftermath. However, it is unlikely that £5,000 is enough to make a lot of places properly resilient to flooding as protecting individual properties is expensive, if done well.

Significant additional government funding has been made available for infrastructure repair, but the wider costs are so great that this won't begin to scratch the surface. The overall cost of the winter floods is estimated at around £250m, of which Cumbria accounts for £175m, £33m in Calderdale, £24m in Northumberland, and £8.6m and £2.7m in Leeds and Bradford respectively.

Further concerns have been voiced over pace at which councils were made to provide names and details of all those applying for the funds. There was pressure from central government to get the money out quickly, but the restrictions and bureaucracy attached to the process made it tricky as council staff had their hands full with recovery work. The process is further complicated by the lack of quality data on who needed the funds and tools to collect more information quickly.

LGiU has recommended previously that the government should reallocate the budget for flood risk management to local flooding authorities so that they can coordinate joined up strategies better across a wider area.

We can't leave it to the same processes, something needs to change

LGiU has argued that local government practice shifting from just providing services, to providing the space, networks and support for communities to take control of their lives. Engaging in meaningful dialogue over an issue as serious as flooding is an important component of this shift, not least as the impact of climate change is felt more and more.

Many councils recognise this and are moving towards a more curatorial role, whereby they shape the conditions for things to happen. Across the board, resource-poor councils will need to enable communities to take control of their lives.

In terms of flooding, there is a vital role for the emergency services, and the local authority is at the heart of preparation and recovery.

Heather Shepherd of the National Flood Forum warns that the long-term nature of recovery is often overlooked. "There needs to be an understanding that recovery does not just finish", she told a DEFRA Committee hearing on the floods earlier this year, "it has a long‑term effect on people's lives."

Those impacts linger in various guises, but one of the most persistent is in the mental health and wellbeing of those affected. At the same Committee hearing, Keith Little, cabinet member for highways, transport and flood protection at Cumbria County Council, highlighted the long-term nature of the problem: “After the 2009 floods, the health authority was telling us that, up until 2012, people were still coming forward with mental‑health issues.”

Councils need to take a more expansive view of their role and responsibilities in the aftermath of increasingly intensive flooding events

With their remit extending into the general health and wellbeing of the people and communities it is arguable that this emotional and psychological support should be a core aspect of recovery. Steve Wragg, flood risk manager at York City Council, argues that councils need to take a more expansive view of their role and responsibilities in the aftermath of increasingly intensive flooding events. “The technicalities of the Flood Water Management Act can be delivered in a fairly straightforward way”, he argues, but the ethos of the Act is much broader and relies on a joined-up perspective of the whole area.”

Some councils are beginning to recognise this and take steps to better support communities with the psychological and emotional impacts that follow in the wake of disasters like a massive flood event. It is similar to a bereavement, says Heather Shephard, who has worked closely with councils across the country recovering from significant flooding. Most councils are not aware at first that this is the kind of issue that they will have to address, but it soon becomes apparent.

There are not many specific local government programmes oriented towards providing psychological and emotional support for flood victims. As with many council activities, however, improved wellbeing should be a consideration in the work that is done anyway. And awareness is growing of this throughout local government. An evaluation by Newcastle City Council following a series of serious emergencies in 2012, including a flood and residential building collapse, took the psychological impacts into account.

Peter Thornton, leader of South Lakeland District Council, says that his council's role is to “lessen the stress” as far as possible for those who have had to leave their home, or were dealing with the effects on homes and businesses. The key thing they can do, he says, is to sort the basics for people, such as the removal of damaged and destroyed white goods, and providing assistance with insurance and funding claims.

What needs to change?

Drone footage over Cockermouth following floods in December 2015, courtesy of www.tobysmith.com

Councils should control more than the 8% of the flooding budget they currently control

Councils should make better use of technology and open data

Local Community Resilience Forums should be set up across the country to coordinate community level action

Floods of the magnitude experienced in storms Eva and Desmond have historically come around about once every 50 years. They are likely to become more frequent, though, whether as result of climate change, population growth, urbanisation, or ageing infrastructure.

For lasting change, John Lamb says, we need a profound rethink of how we manage and plan for flooding across a whole area. "There were major floods in 2012, then again last winter," he says, "its not the first time." Four million tonnes of water flooded through the Calder valley in 2012, and lessons were learnt about how to prepare and how to cope. John's team did everything they could when they got the forecasts of Desmond and Eva, but it became clear very quickly (on Christmas day, in fact) that it was going to be far worse this time around.

Something needs to change, but there is inadequate attention being paid to flooding. Citizens and government at all levels urgently need to engage. The Environment Agency estimates that for every £1 spent on flood defence £8 is saved in terms of insurance and costs to homes and businesses. And it's not just councils. There are many public and private organisations with important roles to play. Local government should have the support from the centre to coordinate multi-agency responses.

There are also examples of more grassroots activity, such as the Cumbria Community Foundation Flood Recovery Appeal, and the North Yorkshire Flood Appeal. At the National Flood Forum Heather Shepherd talks about the importance of the community flood action groups that have been set up in many areas. In West Sussex these have been grouped into clusters and given representation on the country-wide Strategic Flood Resilience Group, opening up decision-making and management processes to those in the know and on the ground. Government should ring fence funding for communities to do the work that needs to be done, she argues.

In his March Budget, George Osborne announced a 0.5% increase in insurance tax, which would raise money for flood defence spending in areas that were hit over the winter. Of £900m that the increase is projected to raise over five years, £690m would go on flood spending. Many insurance companies were gladdened by the news (it was a smaller tax increase than they had expected) but the Association of British Insurers voiced their disappointment, arguing that flood defence should be a central part of government capital spending, not an extra.

Below: drone footage of flood damage at Thirlmere, in Cumbria, taken by Gaist Solutions Ltd

Councils need to know very quickly where the damage has been done, where it is most severe, how it can be fixed and how much it is likely to cost.

Paula Clayton-Smith and her team at Gaist, an infrastructure and emergency services consultant, make a compelling argument that technology can provide some much-needed solutions to the problems councils encounter around flooding.

Across all local authorities there are potential capacity issue, particularly in terms of crisis management and recovery. Following the recent floods it became apparent that the scale of the issues and the problems to be tackled are huge, while the organisational memory that public organisations had stored up over years has been steadily diminished as budgets and departments have shrunk. If events conspire, as they did last winter, to make the crises particularly bad then that lack of capacity could be acutely felt.

Technology helps to break down the issues and barriers into something more manageable. The tools that Gaist and other similar organisations bring to the table are intended to make things as simple as possible for managers, engineers, the community and people on the ground.

Within about 4 hours of the storm dying away in Cumbria Paula and the team had deployed across the county with staff, technology and systems that were simple and could be accessed by all – not just a select few. This was critical as established systems struggled to cope with the scale and volume of data. They sent up their drone aircraft, with high-definition cameras attached, to track up and down the valleys and gather images of the damage. This footage was used by COBRA, Civil Servants and staff to both see the scale of issues on the A591 but then used in 3D format to help assess quickly the implications of any possible landslides.

Councils need to know very quickly where the damage has been done, where it is most severe, how it can be fixed and how much it is likely to cost.

Thanks to the drone footage Cumbria had an incredibly accurate assessment of the post-flood situation. This was bolstered by the 3D imaging of hillsides and valleys, pulling together different layers of information. This allowed engineers to avoid danger of landslips and other accidents when they were deployed to upland areas.

Gaist produces 3D images from drone footage...

...which are used to assess damage quickly...

...and ensure safety for engineers and repair workers

Video technology is really useful at aiding quick decisions and rapidly conveying a situation. Paula argues, "research has shown that the human brain makes quick decisions and assessments, based on visuals, which are often much faster than those that can be made using maps or written text." This is a principle that is also becoming the norm in the world of Social Media. Gaist has also crowd source videos to help assess a wider picture of damage. People that are already out on the ground can send pictures and videos, using rapidly deployed mobile apps. An approach used with the Army personnel in Cumbria looking at damage in the field. At Gaist there is even live streaming from mobiles available that can be simultaneously mapped to provide an up to the minute picture of what is happening across a wide area.

Councils need more than just fancy new tools, however. Making the best of them requires flexibility, adaptability, and accepting different ways of working. Councils cannot exercise total control over the event, but they can set up and coordinate the networks by enabling as many people as possible to connect.Using drones in this way is still relatively new. Despite restrictions on where they can be flown, it is a practise that is spreading.

It's a no-brainer for John Lamb, who says "it's daft that in the event of a civil emergency we can't send a drone up a river to assess the damage and the changing situation for fear it crosses over a road." He highlights another big barrier to change in the lack of open data. Firstly data about the build up to events as bodies like the EA 'own’ the water gauges. Secondly there are still barriers in having single lists of the most vulnerable people in the area – not only time consuming in a time of crisis it could be fatal. 

There needs to be good quality, clear, and transparent data across departments on who is at risk, where the infrastructure is weakest and where the assets are that could be useful in recovery, so that we can deploy resources where they are needed as quickly and efficiently as possible. But as it currently stands, most councils have to employ traditional tactics, including going door-to-door assessing each home in turn to see whether they are able to be reconnected to the grid.

Paula agrees that more open sharing of better quality data could really help to alleviate the stress and strain that is heaped on people involved in the recovery effort. Things move so quickly during a flood, and responses have to be agile and rapid. Better informed preparation, response and reporting would be invaluable and technology can help to facilitate this.

John is adamant that there needs to be innovative new thinking about how we prepare for and manage events like this. "We can't leave it to the same processes, something needs to change," he argues, particularly as they are likely to become more and more common. The challenge is that this requires investment, time, and resources, and with limited room for manoeuvre, councils can only do so much as it stands.

Technology and data would help immensely to build this essential new approach. But it also requires recognition at all levels that flood resilience relies on strong partnerships across the public realm.

Crucially, though, it is about more than just physical infrastructure, bricks and mortar. It is about communities, people and the networks that sustain them. In this sense resilience should be intertwined with local government functions across the board to encompass local health and wellbeing of residents in the long-term.