How community groups are tackling flood risk

  • More than five million properties in England are at risk of flooding – one in every six properties
  • Community groups can be integral in embedding an effective multi-agency response to local flood risk, and ensuring communities remain flood aware
  • At-risk communities should consider how to establish, strengthen and evolve these groups, to boost their resilience in the face of flooding

Tackling flood risk calls for an integrated multi-agency response, with community groups playing a vital frontline role for at-risk or affected locations.

According to Environment Agency figures, around 5.2 million properties in England are at risk of flooding – one in every six properties.

In December 2015, Storm Desmond caused significant damage and disruption to families and businesses across rural communities, towns and cities in the UK’s north. Our subsequent review of this severe flooding event highlighted key questions around the role of community flood action groups.

Here, we look at how these groups can contribute to, and develop, a responsive policy, drawing on insight from the Zurich/JBA Trust Post Event Review Capability (PERC) report on the impact of Storm Desmond.

Establish a local force

Flood-affected residents often unite to form successful and democratic flood action groups. By unifying local voices, these groups can often persuade decision-makers to enact the changes local communities need, and that ensure flood action is truly effective.

A well-organised, enthusiastic group can:

  • Support and enhance other public services, galvanising local residents into taking responsibility for their community, for example by carrying out regular maintenance checks in partnership with the local authority
  • Help coordinate individual and local community emergency action plans, providing much-needed self-help and care for vulnerable neighbours

The National Flood Forum and Environment Agency can provide support, advice and encouragement for such groups, helping to ensure they continue once the crisis has ended.

Sharing local wisdom with agencies

Local knowledge captured by community groups before, during and after flooding events, can be invaluable for helping agencies, such as local government and the Environment Agency, coordinate and prepare appropriately.

Knowing floods will effectively cut off one side of the town from the other in Keswick, for example, has helped planners decide where to base emergency operations. Clarity over which schools are vulnerable to disruption by flooding can ensure alternative arrangements are put in place, so that learning can continue.

Harnessing the power of the community can develop a truly localised response to enable the community to stay on its feet. This could include disseminating flood warnings, explaining what the warnings mean for residents, and sharing information about the appropriate and safe actions to take.

By serving as a focal point for community action, flood action groups can enhance knowledge sharing and help avoid local losses.

Residual flood risk

Storm Desmond highlighted two flawed preconceptions about flooding:

1. References to ‘100-year flood events’ unhelpfully skewed perceptions of risk. Many inferred from the term that flooding on this scale would only happen once every 100 years. What the term actually means is there is the same probability each year that a similar level of flood could occur.

It would, perhaps, be more helpful to educate residents on the risk of such events occurring over a longer time-scale. For example, taking the same flood risk, i.e. a 1 in 100 year event, there’s a 40% probability of experiencing that level of flood over a 50 year period.

It’s for this reason that anyone living in an area exposed to a 1 in 100 year flood zone is at a relatively high risk of flooding in the longer term unless adequate flood protection can be installed.

2. The storm highlighted the perceived infallibility of flood defences. For example, Carlisle residents, in National Flood Forum drop-ins, described a “false sense of security” and anger at the defences’ “failure” in the extraordinary flood event.

The Environment Agency estimates that flood defences during Storm Desmond protected 8,600 homes, bought residents more evacuation time, and reduced the flood’s impact. However, the sheer amount of water was far larger than the implemented protection levels could cope with.

The storm revealed that flood defences are not a failsafe solution against all flood risk. Schemes cannot offer complete protection and risk is rarely reduced to zero.

Being prepared

Community flood action groups can help educate residents about the residual flood risk. They are also a great source of insight for local and government authorities, helping to identify trigger points and appropriate individual alleviation measures to implement if, for example, the first line of flood defences is breached.

To find out more about the work of community flood action groups, the National Flood Forum is a great source of information and insight, with more than 160 affiliated groups in England and Wales.

Find out more and access helpful guides and insight with our new Flood Risk Resource.