Changing policy and practice to increase flood resilience in the UK and Belgium

A small shift in policy approach cascaded into a large-scale change in the uptake of flood resilience measures

This benefitted communities affected by flooding, as well as government agencies, businesses and insurers.

Flooding is a big problem in the UK. In England and Wales alone, floods cause approximately £1.4 billion of damage annually, and authorities have categorised 860,000 homes and 20% of non-residential properties as high risk. Yet few people take up retrofitting measures that contribute to Property-level Flood Resilience (PFR), such as redesigning kitchens into resilient kitchens, using resilient airbricks or adding door barriers.

Improving the uptake of Property-level Flood Resilience (PFR):

To improve PFR uptake, Kingston researcher Dr Tim Harries conducted qualitative research with people living in high flood risk areas in England and analysed previous surveys involving those populations. Responses from 600 participants revealed that the decision to take up PFR is partly based on social and psychological considerations and that previous explanations, based on risk perception and cost-benefit, are insufficient.

For instance, some people were worried that their adoption of PFR would be seen by neighbours as a betrayal or suggest that the local area was unsafe. Respondents from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) tended to distrust advice that went against their in-group norms or came from outsiders. The survey analysis explains why policies to encourage uptake through information dissemination about risk and PFR options have limited effect.

Dr Harries's research showed the need to rethink policies.

After the publication of his findings, the UK's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Environment Agency (EA) launched pilot schemes to normalise the idea of PFR in society. One scheme, called ‘Flood Resilience Community Pathfinder', was set up in 2013 to fund local projects that drew on local knowledge and wisdom; this helped 60,000 property owners adopt PFR. A DEFRA policy advisor confirmed that Dr Harries's work brought a change in direction in policy and practice, and that it helped reduce the cost, disruption and distress caused by flooding.

In 2016, Dr Harries's research prompted the establishment of a roundtable.

This roundtable involved banks, the insurance industry, engineering companies and others, encouraging them to find their own solutions to PFR uptake. The roundtable also developed a code of practice to refurbish flooded buildings by applying PFR. Sedgwick's National Technical Director and Chair of one of the roundtable's task groups said that Dr Harries's findings convinced them to "avoid simplistic solutions that would have been ineffective."

Dr Harries's work on SMEs was conducted as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's SESAME project. The Policy, Strategy and Investment Research Team Lead at the Environment Agency explains how the SESAME research remains "the main source of evidence" for the EA on this matter and how that research "helped put SMEs on the government's flood risk management agenda". Dr Harries's research also persuaded insurance companies to normalise PFR by paying for it. One large insurer began to fund PFR for its customers.

There have also been advances outside the UK.

DEFRA shared lessons from Dr Harries's research with the Flanders Environment Agency in Belgium. The Agency then reduced its reliance on information campaigns and placed more emphasis on engaging the region's citizens in consultation and planning.

Just over a decade after Dr Harries began his research, the UK's and Belgium's flood resilience policies and practices have significantly changed and advances have been made in ensuring that fewer people are vulnerable to flooding.

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