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19 Jul 2017

10 years on – flooding lessons unlearned

Posted in Blog posts

(main photo: Dealing with floods WWT style – with floating wheelbarrows!)


It is 10 years since the UK’s worst floods on record. It’s a time to:

  • Firstly reflect on the shock, hardship and bravery of thousands of people across the nation who found their lives washed away by rising waters. This week their stories are being widely recounted by their local press who recorded the devastation.
  • Secondly catch up with those people and hear how their stories unfolded once the public focus moved on. For some, it took years to wrestle with insurance companies, rebuild homes or re-establish businesses.
  • And thirdly assess whether we learned the lessons of 2007 and have reduced future flood risk where we can.

On that third point, things started well. The Government set up a review and accepted many of its recommendations. Among those was a recognition that covering our country with more and more buildings and tarmac increases flood risk – because water runs off hard surfaces quickly which increases peak flows into rivers.

So Parliament passed a law in 2010 to say that new developments must deal with rainfall through sustainable means wherever possible. That generally means creating “mini-wetland” features which let rainfall permeate slowly through the soil, rather than being sped down a pipe to overwhelm the nearest river.

These “mini-wetland” features include ponds, bog gardens and soakaway patches. These can be as simple as letting the water soak into a lawn or flower bed.

Sustainable drainage – the new houses and driveways behind, drain into the bog garden in front, rather than down pipes into the local river

But by late 2010 the floods were a distant memory in Westminster, and the lessons began to be unlearned. The new government’s priorities included deregulation and tackling economic issues. So it refused to implement the law that Parliament had passed (except in the minority of largest developments).

The primary reason the government gave was to “avoid excessive burden on business”. In other words, a new law would be inconsistent with their political promise to deregulate the construction industry in order to boost the economy.

Ironically, this doesn’t make economic sense. A soakaway patch is generally a lot cheaper than installing underground piping. The government’s own figures suggested sustainable drainage is usually cheaper than traditional drainage and that every £1 spent could return up to £3 in benefits for water quality and lower flood risk. But the decision was less about reality and more about political perception.

WWT continues to press the current Government on this issue. We’re working with many partners who are equally concerned. Have a look at our joint reports with the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and Business In The Community (BITC) (the latter relates to building sustainable drainage in schools).

As a result of that pressure, the Government is currently reviewing the effectiveness of the current law on SuDS and is set to publish that review later this year.

I recommend you look at local media websites over the next few days and read the stories of those affected by the 2017 floods. The more we see them and remember them, the more chance we have of learning the lessons of 2007 and doing our best to avoid such hardship happening again.