Why are we still building on floodplains?

Co-op Insurance has commissioned an environmental report into building on flood plains by the University of Salford, to assess the impact flooding has on communities and to discover why flooding is getting worse.

The insurer experienced first-hand the aftermath of Storm Desmond, when it hit the UK in December 2015. Over 43,000 homes suffered power cuts in Cumbria and Lancashire, and an estimated 6,000 homes were affected by flooding. The average buildings insurance claim was £44,000 and the total damages were in excess of £500 million.

Perhaps some blame can be put down to climate change; scientists agree that warmer air can hold more moisture – meaning that temperature rises can lead to storms that may drop intense bursts of rain. Met Office figures confirm that rainfall has risen in intensity over the last 60 years.

Following the twelve month study, the Salford team estimates that 90 per cent of floodplains across England have been altered so extensively that they no longer work as they would in their natural state. The report predicts that flooding will worsen unless action is taken to reverse the damage.

Floodplains that have been significantly changed can no longer withhold water, meaning that it flows downstream more quickly, putting pressures on residential communities where flood defences are unable to cope.

Natural floodplains account for about 5% of land in England, although the report found that only 0.5% is natural or semi-natural wetland. Otherwise:

65% is artificially smooth and more uniform than the natural landscape, the modified surfaces often a result of farming;

9% has been built on as urban and suburban developments;

4% is open water; and

6% is woodland and rough grassland.

Over half of those surveyed said they had been the victim of floods on a previous occasion, with others suffering three times (eleven per cent) or four times (seven per cent). The human impact of flooding was varied, from being the cause of house moves, replacement of carpets and even separation from partners. Twelve per cent lost all personal possessions and family photographs in the floods.

The report concluded that: “The speed at which floodplains have deteriorated is a cause for great concern. Given the fact that UK weather will consist of more storms in years to come, if we don’t act now to restore these floodplains, what we saw with Storm Desmond in Cumbria will be a more frequent occurrence.”

As well as not building on floodplains, there is other action that can be taken. The replacement of ineffective barriers such as wire fences with hedgerows and re-planting natural vegetation that can form a natural brake which would slow down the waterflow by as much as 15%. The resulting retention of topsoil, that might otherwise be washed away, is an added benefit to farmers.

See our newsletter archive for previous articles on flood plains and flooding and development.