By Alister Scott, Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning

There has been a lot of rain in the West Midlands over the last two weeks. Clearly, the wrong sort of rain; it falls too quickly and runs off our hard surfaces into our inadequate drainage systems. And so we have the groundhog day of people being flooded with all the misery, costs and renewed clamours for somebody to do something. I wrote two years ago on this state of affairs and little has changed.

This blog looks beyond the issue of flooding to champion the need to think about better managing our water for all extreme weather events. Rain downpours today could so easily be the droughts of tomorrow. So we need to think and act proactively about how to design and redesign our places and communities to manage water more effectively.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and using one in 100 year flood events for risk analysis is dangerous as they are based on past weather trends. Equally relying on technological fixes with multi-million pound flood projects is bordering on the arrogant in trying to defeat nature rather than working with nature to produce better solutions.

I suspect a lot of readers are wanting to blame someone for the floods and disruption; after all it is in our nature. Top of the list are the council and planners; useful scapegoat for all our societal ills, but all of us have some part of the blame and some part in the solution too.

How many of us have decked our garden and paved our driveways to park more cars.  Actions of an individual seem harmless but when considered cumulatively can add up to lots of hard and impermeable spaces so that when rain falls heavily it rushes into our inadequate drainage systems causing floods.  So it is worrying to see continued delays over the recommendations of the 2008 Climate Change Act requiring new developments to have appropriate sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) incorporated within them.

These soft engineering solutions use green spaces, reeds bed systems, permeable surfaces or even water features to act as flood protection; they help by slowing water down to relieve the sudden pressure on drainage systems storms can cause.

Unfortunately in the recent 2016 Housing and Planning Act 2016 the government response has been to kick SuDS into the long grass in the form of a parliamentary inquiry. This reflects the power of the development lobby who do not want to pay for them. This is bad policy in pursuit of short term economic goals which fails to recognise the impact of floods on economy, business and people.

So we need to move from a reactive approach to a more proactive approach to water management that is inclusive and integrated. Here a climate change fund/levy can raise the necessary resource to invest properly.

  • Part one is to have the develop tax over new development schemes where developers fund or deliver SuDS as demanded c by the 2008 act.
  • Part two is to link in higher council tax payments to help with retrofitting SuDs to existing areas as many fail to recognise it is the inadequacies of past and current developments that are key to surface water flooding.
  • Part three is to bring in more stringent building regulations to help us manage water more effectively. We should be designing our future buildings to store rainwater for showering and toilets rather than flushing fresh water down our toilets.

Resilient water management will benefit us all in flood and drought situations; something we are going to have to respond to. Again this is a cost that developers will need to bear in new developments.

We also need to get away from the mindset of just building more homes. When we build homes we build communities and they need community infrastructure and services.  Hospitals, doctors, schools and roads are key to most people. But equally there needs to be green space factored into the development at the outset. Not added as a bolt on.  These green spaces are not just pretty; they are useful for play and amenity, biodiversity and also flood protection. It is not a waste of space; they are assets that make development work for the long term.

Above all the recent events illustrate to me that we need better joined up policies across national and local government to address our changing climate and weather.  My personal observations are that we are still ruled by silo thinking in departments at all levels of government which leads to ‘disintegrated’ policy responses which in the long term only  generate increased costs and loss to wellbeing. So let’s get outside our comfort zones and instead of the blame culture let’s work positively to make the ‘sun come out’.

 Find out more about studying the built environment at Birmingham City University.

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Alister Scott

Alister Scott

School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University