It’s Bank Holiday weekend and I have a bit of time to reflect on what I’ve learned about flooding in Wales so far, and the prospect of a national flood forum. So, this is a very informal ‘interim report’ as I get my thoughts together – and I welcome any and all comments (except abuse!). My main concerns, which have surfaced as I’ve read the official reports, kept an eye on the news and talked to people, are: (i) how flooded and at-risk communities will participate in the conception and running of a Wales flood forum; (ii) how these communities will be defined by the authorities and how they define themselves, especially how the most vulnerable and perhaps isolated people will be represented and cared for; (iii) how a Wales flood forum might engage with climate change; (iv) how a flood forum could fit with the other agencies active with respect to flooding, notably Natural Resources Wales (specifically the Flood Awareness team of the former Environment Agency Wales), the relevant departments and structures of the Local Authority, and the existent National Flood Forum, which nominally covers England and Wales at the moment: What should be the specific roles of a Wales Flood Forum? What are the agencies not doing or not able to do enough of? Should a Wales Flood Forum concentrate on recovery, for instance, and/or on lobbying or advocacy work on behalf of communities? Relatedly, I’ve become interested in how any flood forum for Wales would be funded and constituted (e.g. as an independent body, perhaps a consultancy service of sorts, or as a quasi non-government organisation, (quango)). And I’ve become increasingly interested in the role that the insurance industry plays and how different this could be, arguably to the benefit of all.

The first thing to say is that everyone I have communicated with is genuinely concerned to do the best for at-risk and flooded communities, including Local Authority Officers, NRW, the National Flood Forum, The Scottish Flood Forum, Assembly Members - even academics! Of course, I haven’t met anyone from the Insurance industry yet and the Minister for Natural Resources and Food in the Welsh Government was (perhaps understandably given he’s in anew job) too busy to talk to me. However, I have no doubt that no-one in government or the insurance industry wishes anything but the best for at-risk and flooded communities: the caveat in both cases will be ‘within financial reason’: The government has to balance the books and insurance companies want to make profits. Anyway, there is evidently tremendous goodwill ‘out-there’ with respect to flooding, and equally evidently a high degree of competence already exists – not least in community flood groups. Inevitably, I suppose, the key issue is that resources are stretched too thinly to adequately address the various types and aspects of flooding. Which means it is even more crucial to get a flood forum for Wales right: Its constitution, funding, role and interactions must be geared at getting the most of what we want from the service out of what we can afford to invest.

Another point to note is that the Welsh Government report on Flood Advocacy makes some good points about the constitution and role of what it dubs a ‘Flood Support Service’. I must admit that I haven’t yet been able to track down where this report is at in the government process nor talk to anyone in government about it. I am, though, going to meet one of the reports authors in the next couple of weeks. A criticism of the report, which I’ve noted from talking to people, is that it doesn’t seem to build on what we’ve already got, particularly the work of NRW and Local Authorities: It doesn’t detail how the flood support service would dovetail with these agencies. Perhaps is also fails to address potential problems with advocacy and lobbying when it places the ownership of the composite flood forum (the flood support service and National Framework for Flood Support) squarely in the hands of government?

Let me address some of my own concerns based on my very provisional finding. The experience of frontline communities, whether negative or positive, could make a vital contribution to the design and running of a Wales Flood Forum. I need to meet and talk with many more community flood groups, but already it’s evident that hands-on, situated knowledges of at-risk and flooded communities could be extremely valuable – and all, too easily missed in legislative processes. NRW report how effective a well functioning community flood group can be and how the agency’s problem is not having the resources to help more groups to set up. Meanwhile, competent people in cohesive communities show just how minimal this help need be. Community and individual household flood plans must surely be at the heart of a well functioning flood support service? There is a role for communities and community councils, in liaison with Local Authorities, to provide continuity and to look after vulnerable and isolated community members (respecting privacy, confidentiality and so on are potential problems here). A Wales Flood Forum might conceivably have a role to play in monitoring potential – perhaps inadvertent – exclusion in how communities constitute themselves, being aware too of any self-serving interests in community flood groups.

Thinking about how a Wales flood forum might engage with climate change seemed a tangential issue in many of my discussions... But NRW have tried to stimulate awareness in their work on flooding. And, perhaps most significantly, at least one community flood group has taken the initiative to inform itself about climate change, bringing in informed speakers to discuss the nature of the phenomena and its local and global impacts. Among all those I have talked with so far there is a consensus that climate change is implicated in the increased risk of flooding in Wales. Moreover, extreme and unpredictable weather has greatly increased the number of communities at-risk of flooding beyond ‘traditional’ coastal and flood-plane areas: Essentially, almost all communities are now at risk. In passing, I should note the debate on whether flooding in a unique phenomena, which merits a dedicated national service/forum, or whether it might be grouped with other extreme weather events (drought, heavy snowfalls, very hard frosts...). Or perhaps floods and fires fit more 'naturally' together? Maybe disaster or emergency is the right framework? The Flood Advocacy report suggests a ‘sustainability’ framework for flood services, but perhaps the ‘resilience’ frameworks with which Local Authorities are already engaged would be appropriate?

Considering how a flood forum/service would fit with other agencies, it’s clear we need to build on the knowledges and capabilities we already have in communities, Local Authorities, NRW and so on. What roles and responsibilities should these agencies retain, which should be enhanced, and which might pass on the flood forum? As I’ve already intimated, communities feel that they need an advocate after a flood event – an independent body able to represent them to all concerned levels of government and it agencies, to insurance companies and so on. There also seems to be a particular role for a flood forum/service in recovery – especially long-term support for communities: As many people have pointed out, a flood does not end when the water recedes; dealing with insurance, temporary accommodation, rebuilding etc can be very long processes. But is there a role for a flood forum in flood risk management or mitigation? Would it be better to fund NRW to extend its Flood Awareness service to more communities so as to get flood groups and plans in place? Should other ‘before the flood’ roles be left to NRW and Local Authorities?

Finally, for now, what about the insurance industry (Association of British Insurers), which is still in negotiation with government about a new deal on flooding? I’ve read that in France insurance premiums are equalised so that any extra individual risk (from flooding, say) is spread to every household in the nation. In the light of the unpredictability of contemporary flooding particularly – almost every community is at risk – this seems an eminently sensible way of doing things. So, why do I get the feeling that this option is not on the table in current negotiations? (I know, I do need to talk to representatives of ABI). One thing ABI should consider it that some – certainly not all - insurance companies are viewed by communities as part of the problem and not part of the solution. There are some key and seemingly easy to resolve issues such as changing a ‘like for like’ replacement principle to one which reduces the damage to the building and the insurer’s financial exposure in the event of a future flood. There also seems to be a role for a flood forum to inform communities of their rights, for instance with respect to choosing independent assessors and trusted – maybe local – builders. But how could  forum best engage with companies who make flood defence products and perhaps make independent  recommendations?

Vinny Bliss
6/11/2013 00:11:30

There's quite a lot of questions raised here. More than enough to justify the time needed to thoroughly consider all of the options. All I can suggest is to ensure the addition of the practitioners into the consultation process so that process is thoroughly informed by those on the ground delivering engagement and support services and not soley be directed by numbers on papers and reports. The anecdotal aspect of this work needs to be shared and best practice built up through trial and error needs to be acknowledged.

This process should not be developed solely on flooding in other places across the country, but on the realisites of risk we face in Wales and based on the capacity for Welsh organisations to continue the current approaches of raising awareness, creating flood plans and increasing resilience or to expand to cover post flood recovery, insurance issues etc.
Many questions, but I am now curious as to who is listening and drafting the responses.

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