Should we build in flood-prone areas? Contribution to debate in Prospect Magazine

Following heavy flooding in the UK, Prospect Magazine published an article on 8 January 2016 with five different contributors debating whether construction in flood-prone areas should go ahead.

Although Venice is a very unique environment, I ask if Venetians could innovate to cope with flooding, why can’t people in other flood-prone places be defended?

This is a link to the article:
Big question: should we build on the floodplain?

Here is the text of the article:

Big question: should we build on the floodplain?
Must we bow to nature, or is innovation possible?

by Prospect Team / January 8, 2016

Last month was the wettest December on record—thousands of homes in Britain were flooded. Now Scotland is facing heavy floods, and yesterday a “danger to life” alert was issued in Aberdeenshire.

David Cameron’s planning policies have not been adequately challenged by the Labour party, perhaps due it its being otherwise occupied. And so the government continues to permit building on floodplains across the country.

Should building on floodplains now be considered too risky? Or, given restrictions on building elsewhere, should we stick it out, and build flood defences to protect new, at-risk developments? Below, our panellists offer their views.

We’ve had our wake-up call

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion

As well as being devastating for those who experience them, this winter’s floods are the loudest possible wake-up call to the Government to do far more to protect the country from extreme weather events associated with climate change. As a very first step it’s clear that we must stop building on floodplains, and also give water companies a statutory role in the planning process.

And, while we can’t stop the rain, we can take urgent action to “slow the flow”–changes in landuse patterns, protecting and enhancing peat bogs and wetlands and planting trees can all significantly reduce risk of extreme flood peaks. It’s utterly inexcusable that the Government has failed to learn lessons from floods in the past, leaving thousands of people and their homes at risk.

Bowing down to nature

Robert Lyons, Science and Technology director at the Institute of Ideas

Yes, we should build on flood plains. Many people desire to live near a river, and when land is in short supply in some areas, it makes sense to build there. However, it should not be the government’s job to retrospectively provide flood defences for new developments. What is needed is housing designed to cope with flooding in the future, most obviously by raising living areas above the potential level of floodwaters.

People around the world cope well with extremes of weather. New York, for example, has to deal with both freezing snow and heatwaves well beyond UK norms. If a successful city like that can cope, it is surely possible for UK developers to provide flood-proof housing. The last thing we should do is bow down to nature and cordon off swathes of land for fear of flooding.

A fast track to flooding

Jonn Elledge, Editor, CityMetric

Should we be building houses on the flood plain at a time of increasingly frequent floods? Absolutely not.

And yet, we are. Indeed, London’s largest housing development zone is situated in one. If all goes to plan, Barking Riverside, a post-industrial site which lies outside the protective custody of the Thames Barrier, will one day host nearly 11,000 homes. In addition, almost half of the fast track housing zones announced by the government last year are at risk of the sorts of storms which hit Cumbria and Yorkshire in December.

Why do we continue to do this? Because politically imposed land use restrictions mean that we’ve nowhere else to build. If we want to stop this, we need to release more land for new housing. That means either strengthening the rules on compulsory purchase–or weakening those on the green belt.

Venice managed–why can’t we?

Dr. Dominic Standish, lecturer for the University of Iowa at its CIMBA campus in the Venice region of Italy and author of ‘Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality’

Recent population movements in Asia, the USA and Europe, suggest more people desire to live close to rivers, lakes, coastal waters and in regions prone to flooding. It is remarkable that in the 21st Century, developed societies are unable to meet these desires. This is extraordinary when I consider that in Venice, where I live, locals settled on flood-prone islands in a lagoon from 6th Century AD to build a city. Venice became one of the most populous cities in Europe and was central to world trade and culture. Ancient Venetians suffered much more than their contemporaries from flooding. Rather than retreating to the mainland, they built platforms out across the waters to support more structures. Now, Venice is nearing completion of mobile dams to add protection. Why can’t other places rise to similar challenges?

A new strategy

Lord Krebs Kt FRS, Chair, Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change

In our 2015 Report to Parliament we highlighted that flooding poses the biggest single risk to the UK from climate change. This winter’s record rainfall totals may become the norm in just a few decades. We recommended that the Government should develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk. In response, the Government said: “a strategy to address future residual risk would not be appropriate at this time”. This is simply not good enough: it’s not a matter of belief but of evidence. The evidence suggests that current policies will result in at least an extra 45,000 properties falling in to the highest flood risk category, with a 1-in-30 or greater chance of flooding in any given year, by mid-century. The uptake of sustainable urban drainage systems to prevent sewer flooding is lamentably low, the way in which land is currently managed is exacerbating flood risk in valleys, and housebuilding in the floodplain continues. I hope the Government will now re-think its strategy as we recommended.

Note from Dominic Standish: Please note I wrote that I live in the Venice region but this was edited to ‘Venice’.

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