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Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, has today released new research, entitled In deep water? Mapping the impacts of flooding in the UK since 2007, revealing the impact of flooding in the UK since 2007, using a novel artificial intelligence (AI) technique to unearth and analyse local, regional, and national newspaper articles. New policies are proposed to mitigate the impacts of future flooding, which is likely to increase due to climate change. 

The report collates and presents data on the real impacts of flooding and related hazards on local communities, key public services such as healthcare and education, critical infrastructure such as transport and energy, and a range of businesses across the UK by analysing archives of thousands of local, regional, and national newspaper articles since 2007. This is done using a form of artificial intelligence called Natural Language Processing (NLP). 

The evidence was used to create a UK Flood Impact Map, an original interactive map of flood impacts in the UK, created in partnership with ClimateNode. While extensive, the analysis is not exhaustive, as it only covers a sample of the articles published since 2007, and not all flooding incidents will have been reported. 

The analysis reveals that the UK is not adequately prepared for the increasing risk posed by flooding as the climate changes. In particular, the UK has an urban drainage problem, affecting communities across the country during incidents of heavy rainfall, putting drainage and sewerage infrastructure under strain, even exceeding their limits, and contributing to flooding in some cases. 

As Storm Arwen showed, the UK needs to take more preventative action, rather than simply reactive measures, to help avoid damage to infrastructure and public services from extreme weather events. The UK Government will need to provide local authorities with greater resources to support systemic adaptation and long-term resilience to especially surface water flood risk. 

Bright Blue’s analysis using NLP has revealed that since 2007:

  • There have been at least 51 flash flood events in major urban areas since 2007. This includes at least ten in London, at least seven in Birmingham and the West Midlands, at least seven in Merseyside, at least six in Greater Manchester, and at least six in Edinburgh. There have also been many others in smaller urban areas.
  • At least 15 hospitals have experienced flooding causing disruption or imminent risk of disruption to patient services or hospital support services. Major disruptions to healthcare services include: patients diverted to other A&E departments; emergency patients moved within the hospital; evacuation of in-patients to other hospitals; a major power outage in part of a hospital; and, extensive flood damage to a primary care centre building making it permanently unsafe.
  • At least 68 schools have suffered sufficient water entering buildings to disrupt lessons, or school transport stuck in floodwater, including 22 with at least significant damage and seven with severe damage. Major disruptions to education include: extensive damage resulting in closure and relocation of all or most teaching for several weeks or months, potentially with children spread between other schools or lessons taking place in mobiles for several months; emergency services needed to rescue children from a school bus stranded in floodwater in clearly dangerous circumstances; and, teachers describing repeat flooding as impacting pupils’ education.
  • At least nine care homes and four retirement complexes have been flooded, all of which were catering for the elderly. Major disruptions to social care include: Carers unable to reach elderly people in rural areas with family diverted from work and/or flood recovery efforts to step in; loss of power, hot water and heating in care homes; evacuations and precautionary evacuations; care home staff ferried to work in boats; and, residents displaced from a care home for several months.
  • There has been flooding damage to at least 31 UK supermarket branches. Major disruptions to shops and other town centre businesses include: flooding throughout the building rendering a supermarket out of action for several days or weeks; structurally unsafe buildings with relocation or permanent closure; and, severe flooding rendering a large number of town centre businesses out of action for weeks.
  • There have been at least two occasions when dam safety has been at risk due to flooding. In 2019, the dam holding back Toddbrook Reservoir in Derbyshire was damaged during heavy rainfall and the nearby town of Whaley Bridge was evacuated. In 2007, 700 people were evacuated from near Ulley Reservoir in South Yorkshire. There have also been at least three instances of water treatment works flooding.
  • At least 12 instances of flooded electricity substations, in at least one case leading to power cuts which were problematic for emergency response and community resilience, and at least five instances of damage to gas pipelines due to the bridges supporting them collapsing.
  • There has been at least one instance where emergency services were required to help evacuate a London Underground station, and at least one instance of an underground station flooding in Glasgow. There has been at least one fatal rail accident due to a landslip, and at least one major incident involving passengers stuck on a train for several hours.
  • There have been at least three life-threatening incidents involving cars trapped under railway bridges due to flooding, as well as closures of roads and the collapse of road bridges, making them unusable for drivers. At least one policeman has also been killed while diverting traffic from a collapsing bridge.

Helen Jackson, Associate Fellow at Bright Blue and report author, commented:

“The disruption caused by Storm Arwen highlights the need to make our infrastructure resilient to extreme weather, and be more preventative and less reactive. Many towns and cities in the UK are seeing repeat episodes of flash flooding affecting households, businesses, and transport systems. 

“We need to recognise this trend and do much more to ensure our urban drainage and sewer systems can cope with heavy rainfall as the climate changes. This should include limiting the spread of impermeable surfaces in our cities and ensuring basic measures like drain cleaning are not overlooked. 

“The recent furore over sewage spills highlighted the importance of adequate drainage and sewerage systems for environmental quality – but this is not just an environmental issue, it is a public safety issue.”

Ryan Shorthouse, Chief Executive of Bright Blue, commented:

“Covid-19 exposed that the UK sometimes lacks preparedness for unforeseen disasters. Flooding is one of the most serious climate-related challenges that this country is facing and will continue to face as the climate changes further in the coming years. 

Reaching net zero emissions is vitally important, but the impact of flooding is already being felt deeply in communities across the UK. The UK Government can and must do much more to better improve the resilience of local communities, businesses, public services, and critical infrastructure to flooding.”

Jonathan Djanogly MP, Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, commented:

“As I have found in my own Huntingdon Constituency, there are few issues other than flooding that can so dramatically and quickly provide a negative impact to people’s homes and lives. 

“This issue urgently needs to be addressed and so I welcome Bright Blue’s report and its many recommendations; not least to better manage research and information concerning flood risk and impacts as well as better support for urban drainage.”

Bright Blue proposes 24 new policies to mitigate flood risk and bolster resilience to its effects, both locally and nationally:

Better preparing key public services and critical infrastructure for flooding

  • Recommendation one: Defra should support and fund an ongoing programme of research to specifically identify and monitor the risks associated with extreme sub-daily rainfall in urban areas. Policymakers should assure themselves that they understand as far as possible the present and future likelihood of extreme rainfall events: the potential consequences for public safety and infrastructure failure; and, any constraints science has on being able to provide guidance on these questions.
  • Recommendation two: Government should introduce a mechanism to ensure the National Security Risk Assessment and National Risk Register incorporate changing climate risk. Policymakers should ensure that the NSRA and NRR are informed by the changing nature of flood risk via climate projections. Ensuring the NSRA is forward-looking on flood risk will allow potential threats to UK communities and critical infrastructure to be better flagged and understood in advance, ultimately increasing the chances of effective preventative actions.
  • Recommendation three: Government should mandate that local authority contingency plans are reviewed periodically when updated flood risk information is available. For example, plans could certainly be reviewed after the Environment Agency releases maps detailing future flood risk in 2024. 
  • Recommendation four: Government should conduct a civil resilience exercise for an extreme rainfall event in a major UK urban area, incorporating significant infrastructure failure. Such an exercise could contain components relating to cascading impacts from infrastructure failures, for example, serious flooding at more than one underground station concurrently, loss of mobile phone coverage, flooded electricity substations, large numbers of vehicles trapped in floodwater, sewer flooding, or impassable emergency services key routes.  
  • Recommendation five: Extend Defra and the Environment Agency’s new analysis of plausible extreme scenarios for surface water flooding to the emergency services and hospitals. This could help emergency planners identify which populations are at risk of not being reachable by emergency services, particularly vulnerable groups, and plan how they would respond to this eventuality.
  • Recommendation six: NHS England should identify any NHS assets included in the high or significant risk maintenance backlog which are also at risk of flooding or have structural features which may be particularly vulnerable to heavy rainfall and then use this information to ensure such assets are suitably prioritised in NHS capital spending decisions. Heavy rainfall and flooding have the potential to do more damage where maintenance is not up to date. The NHS backlog maintenance bill in England has increased rapidly and now stands at around £9 billion, with a sixth of this as ‘high risk’ backlog. Identifying where flooding and heavy rainfall has the potential to interact with a high risk backlog may help prevent future incidents where patient care is disrupted or safety is at risk.
  • Recommendation seven: The Department for Transport (DfT) should put in place a programme to systematically monitor potential bridge vulnerability to flooding, hydrological change and bridge scour at national level, and investigate bridge collapses. The DfT should improve knowledge of the scale of the problem by setting up a formal procedure to investigate bridge collapses and consulting on the best way to identify bridges which may be at risk of deterioration and/or collapse.
  • Recommendation eight: Central government should better support local authorities to identify and repair or upgrade bridges before they experience dangerous failure via new research and existing and even new road transport funding. Government should commission research on the economic impact of damage to bridges and the loss of connectivity that results, and consider it in road transport funding decisions. A national target could be set to ensure that the total stock of road bridges does not decline due to climate change.
  • Recommendation nine: The Greater London Authority, Glasgow City Region and relevant Combined Authorities should all ensure that risks to underground stations in London, Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool from urban flash flooding have been fully assessed, that the assessments are publicly available, and that necessary measures such as improved drainage and SuDS around stations are put in place to mitigate any risks. In London, 2021 has been the highest year on record for the number of hours stations have been closed due to flooding. The risk of surface water flooding affecting underground stations in the capital and other major cities can be mitigated by improving the capacity of street gutters, implementing sustainable urban drainage around stations and protecting subway entrances.
  • Recommendation ten: The Climate Change Committee (CCC) should include more explicit assessment of risks to urban public transport systems from flooding, and associated adaptation progress, in future CCC reports to Parliament on climate risk and adaptation, either under the bracket of ‘rail and urban transport networks’, or in a separate section. A failure to adapt could result in disruption, economic knock-on effects and risks to public safety potentially affecting large numbers of people. It should therefore be considered whether risks and adaptation progress can be monitored more effectively within the UK’s routine adaptation policy cycle.
  • Recommendation eleven: Major port operators should be mandated by government to submit reports to the government’s formal Adaptation Reporting process, if participation does not increase voluntarily. No ports are required to produce resilience plans, and according to the CCC, the government has limited information on the extent to which the sector is adapting and preparing. Boosting participation in the official adaptation reporting progress would increase the chances that potential problems come to light and plans are made to address them.
  • Recommendation twelve: Government should adopt a policy aim of ensuring that electricity substations are equivalently protected from all sources of flooding. This would help ensure the future resilience of the electricity network at a time when electrification will be vital to the decarbonisation process and for transport.
  • Recommendation thirteen: Require telecoms providers to actively assess and disclose assets at risk of flooding and single points of failure in their networks. In each case, action plans for flood risk management and/or elimination of the single point of failure (SPOF) should be produced. Telecommunications providers could be required to assess and disclose whether they have assets at risk of flooding in their networks. If so, they could produce an action plan for flood risk management, or explain why this is not feasible. This would proactively help reduce the future chances of emergency service call failures during flood events.

Improving community resilience to flooding

  • Recommendation fourteen: Government should implement a comprehensive, major public information campaign covering all aspects of flooding, with the aim of increasing national resilience. Advice on knowing your flood risk, how to react during a flood event and improve the flood resilience of your property needs to be disseminated at a national level as many people wrongly believe they are not at risk of flooding, and people also may have vulnerable relatives who live in high flood risk areas. A public information campaign should acknowledge the scale of the problem and help communicate a practical sense of how we deal with it.
  • Recommendation fifteen: Defra and the Environment Agency should improve transparency of flood defence spending decisions to allow better scrutiny and ensure fairness across regions and for deprived communities. Defra and the Environment Agency already publish information on the costs of flood defence capital schemes on an individual scheme basis. They could also publish data every year showing a regional breakdown of progress in flood risk management. Indicators which allow for meaningful regional comparisons could be explored, for example, level of spending per property at risk, or properties protected as a proportion of properties at risk in the absence of defences.
  • Recommendation sixteen: Enable images taken by drones deployed by government agencies during flood events to support Farming Recovery Fund applications and other agricultural schemes relating to flooding. Drones have a wide range of applications in flood risk and emergency management. They are already used by the Environment Agency and police to survey flood-hit areas, and the Environment Agency has a dedicated geomatics team. Images and footage which are already being taken by government agencies could be routinely passed on to Defra to help it assess Farm Recovery Fund applications. Or, such images could be made publicly available for farmers to use to support their applications. Over time, the images could also be used to research the impacts of flooding on farming for public policy.
  • Recommendation seventeen: Give local authorities the power to allow supermarkets to temporarily remain open longer on Sundays during major incidents linked to extreme weather events. A relaxation of Sunday trading laws during serious flood emergencies could help ensure food, cleaning supplies and replacement personal items are available to those who need them. In order to allay concerns of diminishing workers’ rights, the circumstances under which any such relaxation occurred would need to be tightly defined and very clearly temporary. Major incident status could be one way of defining the circumstances under which this power could be used.
  • Recommendation eighteen: The UK Government should set up a scientific taskforce and commission research with the Coal Authority, and Welsh and Scottish Governments, to ensure that the state of knowledge on the risk of  flooding interacting with former mine workings is progressed, alongside assessment of risks relating to coal tips. Around 5.7 million people in England, Scotland and Wales live on former coalfields. It is not satisfactory for large numbers of people to be potentially at risk from a hazard about which so little is known, and one which could present itself more often under future rainfall patterns. The Government should therefore consult with the relevant scientific experts to determine what is required to advance the state of the knowledge of this risk.

Supporting local government and improving urban drainage

  • Recommendation nineteen: The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) should more explicitly acknowledge tackling flooding amongst its ministerial responsibilities and explicitly designate a minister as responsible for coordinating inclusion of flooding considerations within policies across the department. Defra is the lead department for climate adaptation and flood risk management, but there are some aspects of the problem which are clearly within the remit of LUHC. These include: ensuring that the planning system and housing market work to mitigate flood and coastal erosion risk; ensuring local authorities have the resources and capacity to discharge their flood risk management responsibilities; limiting the spread of impermeable surfaces in urban areas; community resilience; and, emergency coordination. LUHC should explicitly designate a minister as its lead point of contact for flooding, responsible for coordinating flooding-related policy across the department, working closely with counterparts at Defra.
  • Recommendation twenty: Ensure the proposed new developer contributions levy due to replace Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy under the Government’s current planning reforms actively encourages the alleviation of flood risk associated with new developments. Local authorities need more money to discharge their flood risk management responsibilities. Concern over surface water flooding and sewer capacity constraints are common reasons for planning objections. Replacing Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy with a single levy could help to address local communities’ concerns over flooding, while being aware that these other barriers may also need to be tackled.
  • Recommendation twenty one: The Government should affirm that sewerage companies have a responsibility to ensure surface water sewer networks are not overwhelmed by increasingly heavy rainfall events as the climate changes, whether that is via Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMP) or other means. Government should set an expectation that future capacity requirements for surface water drainage assets are addressed by sewerage companies, either via methodologies linked to future Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMP) methodologies or other means, and engage with them to overcome any barriers to achieving this. It should also direct Ofwat to champion the interests of householders experiencing surface water flooding when this is partly due to lack of sewer capacity. 
  • Recommendation twenty two: Factor the length of roads a local authority is responsible for maintaining into the funding central government allocates to local authorities for flood risk management. Flooding can damage roads, including by causing potholes, which much DfT funding is intended to address. It’s possible that allocating money to prevent surface water flooding of roads through better drainage would reduce the number of potholes and generate cost savings.
  • Recommendation twenty three: Defra or LUHC should investigate the funding and other barriers which local authorities face in improving their drain clearing and maintenance programmes, as well as how many local authorities actively prioritise high risk areas in their drain clearing schedules, and encourage any that don’t. Some local authorities explicitly prioritise locations with a history of flooding and greater use of optimised schedules for clearing drains and gullies could help. Key access routes for the emergency services and critical infrastructure operators could also possibly be identified and prioritised, as well as obvious low points, such as beneath railway bridges.
  • Recommendation twenty four: Appoint and commission a new official advisory board to develop recommendations on the most immediate and effective steps central government and local authorities could take to alleviate the UK’s growing urban flash flooding problem in existing developed areas. Government should seek expert advice explicitly focussed on the extent to which urban flash flooding could be alleviated in existing developed areas in the next five to ten years. This could be by retrofitting good-quality sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), boosting take-up of property-level SuDS, or encouraging property-owners not to lay impermeable surfaces, seeking clear, actionable recommendations on how to advance this agenda.