UK Government response to flooding must protect the most vulnerable – Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Flood risk management policy must consider how social and economic disadvantage affects people’s ability to cope with flooding, argues Katharine Knox.

The recent extreme flooding in York, where the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is based, has amplified our concerns about the adequacy of current flood risk management and how well protected the most vulnerable are from the impacts of extreme weather.

In the east of York, the floods have devastated over 300 homes, including a Traveller site. As homeowners, campaigners and politicians look at what can be done to prevent damage in the future, it’s vital that we consider how social vulnerability affects people’s ability to cope with floods.

The Yorkshire and Humber region is one of the areas with highest vulnerability to flooding nationally. High levels of social or economic disadvantage mean that residents are likely to need greater protection from flooding.

River and coastal flood disadvantage

In 2015 JRF published an analysis of national flood investment which looked at the relationship between flood investment and communities that may be most disadvantaged by flooding in England due to experiencing both high exposure to flood risks and also high social vulnerability. The most socially vulnerable include people who:

  • will be more deeply affected by flooding, including older people or people in poor health;
  • face increased exposure due to their physical environment such as living in basement or ground floor flats, areas with no green space to absorb surface water run off or mobile homes;
  • are on low incomes and might struggle to recover from the damage.

National flood policy must take into account groups of people who are at further disadvantage due to their socio-economic circumstances and physical environment. Resources need to be allocated according to the most flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods. However our report found that only 100 of the 1,493 planned flood investment schemes currently in the pipeline are in the 249 neighbourhoods with the highest exposure to flood risk and the most social vulnerability. The average planned expenditure per local authority per household protected was £6,610, but some areas with fewer flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods were due to receive much higher spending than those with a greater number.

Of course there are complexities here about the location of defences in relation to areas protected and the varying costs of defences. The Government now has the opportunity to use the national flood resilience review, to consider whether its current approach to flood investment adequately addresses issues of social vulnerability or wider deprivation, or whether a minimum standard of protection is needed for the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the UK.

As climate change makes severe floods more likely, flood planning needs to better account for extreme weather, rather than viewing it as an ‘unprecedented’ phenomenon. JRF will be conducting new research in 2016 to examine which communities may be at greatest risk across the UK, the social vulnerability of these communities and the adequacy of existing responses. We hope that this work will inform future national and local responses and enable us to build our resilience to flooding and protect those in greatest need. The Government’s review of flood resilience should follow the same principles.