What to do about flooding?

I was going to post about something else entirely today but then I got a reminder about an event tonight in the House of Commons – that sadly I can’t make – organised by the All Party Parliamentary Water Group:


The last time I was at in the House of Commons when flooding was discussed, it was a few years back. There was a presentation by Sir Michael Pitt of the lessons learned from the 2007 UK floods in front of a small group of MPs. Various issues were discussed – continued building on flood plains in spite of the known risks and so forth.

The above meeting though looks to be addressing what might happen to an existing agreement between the insurance industry and government – the statement of principles – that’s due to expire on 30 June 2013. This agreement is where insurers are currently obliged ‘to offer flood cover as part of standard policies in most cases’. This situation may change and I look forward to the minutes of this APPWG meeting to find out the prospects… Certainly after the awful flooding many parts of the country experienced last summer (e.g. see my post here, a summary of local impacts here, a national overview here, and a video on 2013’s prospects here) it’s good to see the essential insurance angle is being discussed.

The above APPWG flyer also got me thinking about a related issue that’s cropped up at events I’ve attended in the past few years: the quantity and quality of flood risk information people can get before buying their home.

Given what I do for a living I made pretty sure I looked into flood issues when I recently bought my new home. I got a flood report and dug further to get the developer’s flood risk assessment for the site, including correspondence between them and the EA. Following a detailed read of these materials, and basic checking of some historical issues that had been subject to remedial works – including by the EA – and checking out the surveyors depth models with a measuring tape for myself, all seemed well. (Or, as well as things can look when all you have to go by is text and a few Ordnance Survey style overhead/2D maps with blocks of colour and blue-ish scribbles on to indicate various degrees of potential flood risk…)

Very fortunately we have escaped the local flooding nearby, in what seems like a fairly flood-prone network of valleys that stretch across most of the West Yorkshire county. Nevertheless in the time since the house purchase my curiosity has led me to come across some, well, frankly, scary as hell historical photos that put a graphic reality on some casual remarks that originally looked fairly inert in my current house’s flood report. Here’s one:

‘A resident of the cottages opposite of some 70 years standing, states that the only time in their life that the river flooded … occurred in 1982 … because a mill dam … failed during a flash flood … [that] has long since been filled, so that there is no possibility of any recurrence from this source.’

Sounds reassuring enough, doesn’t it? It did to me. In the rough area to which this report is referring there was some excess rainfall runoff last year (2012). It was nothing too severe and quickly passed:

Stream Flooding

But photos from a local school show what happened 30 years earlier in roughly the same area, i.e. looking back to 1982:

Photo: 1982 flood
Photo: 1982 flood; the gouged out house was where trees now stand in the above picture, by the railway bridge.

The kind of event we saw as just a trickle in 2012 had been far worse in 1982 and had cut up the main road:

Photo: Further up the road near the failed mill dam.
Photo: Further up the road near the failed mill dam.

Even though I understood the 1982 event had had some one-off features (a failed dam, no drainage culverts; ones have since been built) still my jaw just dropped when I saw these pictures! Had I seen these photos rather than some black-and-white text in a flood report, I would definitely have had some tougher questions for the developer, and – who knows – perhaps my house buying decision would have gone a different way if I’d had this data!

After the initial shock, some searching around on local history websites showed a much sadder pattern for the centre of Todmorden though. Here’s one indicative example, showing how a local pub looked during local floods last year:

Photo: The Golden Lion, Todmorden (Source: Todmorden News).
Photo: The Golden Lion, Todmorden (Source: Todmorden News).

Maddeningly here is the same pub in 1931:

Photo: Golden Lion in 1931 flood.
Photo: Golden Lion in 1931 flood. (Source)

Looks terribly similar doesn’t it? 80 years between the two shots but a recognisably similar flood depth in both. What of modern flood alleviation measures? Recently improved flood event response and resilience in the area? Shocking.

Sadly I found a number of ‘matching’ images like this for the centre of Todmorden – going back to floods in 1908 for instance. There was also a newspaper cartoon about floods in 1870:

Cartoon: 1870 floods in Todmorden.
Cartoon: 1870 floods in Todmorden; referring to floods at a local mill that killed three people and further destroyed hundreds of pieces of mill machinery. (Source)

It’s clear some areas have long histories of flooding. Todmorden is one of them but I’m pretty sure it’s not alone in the UK, given how we are riddled with many under and above-ground watercourses of various kinds, and given our patterns of settlement and industrial history (e.g. canals, water-powered mills, docks that have since been converted into housing).

This all made me think about the transparency of the known/publicised history of extreme weather events in any area. There’s no real public, high-profile repository of such events that I’m aware of, for instance. This kind of local history is not often taught in schools and so on. And yet evidence of floods can be gone in a few months or years after an event. So unless you are willing to delve rather actively into a place’s local history, you could quite easily be hoodwinked and not be aware how flood prone an area has been over many decades…

Recently there was the LCLIP project (Local Climate Impacts Profile). This was meant, in part, to document extreme weather event history in an area. Remembering this I looked for mine (West Yorkshire) and found it here. The level of detail is coarse and the record of events is rather sparse. For example there’s this overall risk ‘event’ assessment:

Graphic: Climate change event summary for West Yorkshire, from a LCLIP.
Graphic: Climate change event summary for West Yorkshire, from a LCLIP.

Beyond the 33% figure for floods there are also some snippets from local press, and short descriptions of specific weather incidents, for example:

‘Incident 15: Flash Flooding, summer 2006 “Downpour brings rush-hour chaos for drivers”- Yorkshire Post. Storms, high temperatures and periods of intense rainfall throughout July, August and September 2004 caused wide spread flash flooding across the West Yorkshire region. The road networks were disrupted with reports of rush hour chaos for commuters with flooding on the M62 and A58 around Leeds. There were delays and cancellations to the east coast main line due to flooding, and rail services between Leeds and Manchester were disrupted due to a landslide caused by intense rainfall. Calderdale Council reported a £250,000 clean up operation following the floods.’

But what use is this? It’s informative, yes. But is it as illustrative as the above photos? No. Not at all. Not by a long shot! (Besides how many people even know LCLIPs exist, let alone have looked at the one for their area?)

My feeling is a lot more openness and transparency is needed to address the insurance aspect of flood risk therefore. Prospective tenants and home buyers need (far) more information – and the more graphic it is, the better. Research has already shown that people prefer to ‘feel secure‘ rather than be secure when it comes to flooding. Given this, people are not likely to hunt out data that may well threaten their emotional/ontological well being now, are they? Why not have something like a ‘duty to disclose’ for sellers/landlords instead, with support for the consequences of this disclosure from insurers and/or the government?

Sadly, I’m sure there would be effects on house prices etc. if more information were made available. But let’s remember that extreme weather events are set to become more likely and more unpredictable in coming years. Do we really want to leave people so blind? Are we unwittingly increasing our vulnerability and decreasing our resilience by having people, at the stressful and emotional time that moving house often is, basing significant decisions on incomplete and/or un-engaging data?

Ah well, with any luck this is one of the issues that’s being discussed in the House of Commons tonight, perhaps even as I write this… here’s hoping!

Duncan Thomas

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