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Flood risk - informing communities

'Risk' and 'resilience' are now key terms and should be the focus in the debates around current flooding incidents in the UK, according to one leading academic.

Dr Simon McCarthy, Senior Research Fellow at Middlesex University, works in the Department of Natural Sciences and undertakes both quantitative and qualitative work within the Flood Hazard Research Centre.

He has been speaking to Future Cities Forum about the attitudes of local authorities around communications with regards to flooding and the need to get this right. In the 1950's and subsequent two decades, the construction industry may have caused some flooding incidents in the way they straightened rivers but now he says the issue has moved onto who is responsible for communicating to those buying or renting homes in areas that are not necessarily perceived to have a flood risk.

Often, he says, there isn't the vital discourse around risk when moving into a home. There are people he says who move in to their houses with little idea that there is a risk attached to living in certain areas - it comes down to how well informed people are about their area. Is that the responsibility of the individual or the authorities he questions?

Simon explains:

'The discourse has moved onto resilience as we shift responsibility to local communities and away from government.The Environment Agency only has a remit to protect life - not property - and this can come as a shock to besieged communities.

'Therefore there is no legal basis on which to take government to task for loss of property. There is also only a limited pot of money with which to construct flood defences and inevitably these get topped. In addition, flood defences get over-stepped, and they are only as good as their design. Yes, it is about retrofitting and moving buildings out of the zone, but even flood doors only halt water for a certain period of time, so there is always a risk.

'As researchers, we advise good communications around these issues, as engagement over a long period of time and in a more open manner. The problem needs more sustained communications rather than around just one event when that happens.

'This can include Facebook groups for flood-affected communities. If we look at this now there is a great surge of community flood groups, and we would hope that these act as a portal to wider groups.

'However, we have been talking to Doncaster Council which has a close relationship with 'at risk of flood communities', and this is an example of where communications work well - via a one-on-one sustained conversation before the flooding occurs.

'I have interviewed people who live in places with names like 'Watery lane' but the possibility of flooding has never occurred to them! Island communities, such as those on the Teddington islands in the Thames are adapted to living with floods, but many living on flood plains don't actively make this choice, because they are unaware of the risks.'

He also warns of the new trend in building homes with ground floor garages and living quarters above in an attempt to build 'a defence' against flooding:


'Thames 2100 is all about building along the estuary - with no ground floors except space for cars .However, people will have to realise that they may be trapped fior a couple of days when food waters rise.'

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