Reflections from the #FRM2017 conference

Sniffer’s 2017 Flood Risk Management conference was all about change; a changing climate, a changing population, a changing role for communities, and changing landscapes and land use. It was about learning from the past, looking forward, working collaboratively and embracing change head-on. With a conference packed to capacity and a raft of inspiring speakers, it was impossible to leave the conference not feeling energised by the professionals in the flooding community.

Day one got off to a cracking start with SEPA’s Executive Director, David Pirie, and his interesting take on learning lessons from the past. David reflected on the story of scurvy, when in 1601 Captain James Lancaster discovered and tested lemon juice as a preventive for scurvy, and how it took 250 years for this thinking to become mainstream. Drawing parallels with this and the science of climate change, computer models which predicted greenhouse gases would lead to global warming existed in the 1960’s. David’s point was that we know a lot about flood risk in Scotland, the evidence is clear and the figures speak for themselves; 108,000 properties at risk of flooding and 73% of them residential. But, we don’t have the luxury of 250 years with climate change.

To emphasise the challenges extreme weather events present us today, Stephen Archer from Aberdeenshire Council gave us a whistle stop tour of the impacts and response to one of the most disruptive storms in recent memory, with December 2015’s Storm Frank. Across Aberdeenshire, four major rivers burst their banks, 850 homes and 120 businesses flooded, 144 bridges were damaged and 50 caravans washed away. In total, 5000 residents were affected by the storm and 300 livestock were lost. But the stories behind the numbers were where the delegates gained the biggest insight. For example, when a care home was evacuated to another building that had an unrelated electrical fire and had to be evacuated again, highlighting the importance of backup plans. Or the reluctance of insurers to implement rock armour needed to prevent a 16th century, listed tower house being washed into the River Dee, or when politicians kept turning up during flood remediation works, and when the media made constant demands for interviews. These were the untold stories of the flooding and it was important for the participants to hear these and to be able to learn from Aberdeenshire’s experience. In the end, the good stories shone out – that the Council were able to completely rebuild a major A road and reconnect the town of Braemar in just 8 days, and, that in the end, and most importantly, despite the ferocity of the storm, no one lost their life or went to hospital with a flood related injury.

In the imagining the future session, Daniel Johns, Head of Adaptation at the Committee on Climate Change, spoke of what a future climate might look like. He explained how a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and affect precipitation levels, which is why flooding and coastal change risks are listed as one of the top six priority areas for adaptation in the UK’s Climate Change Risk Assessment (2016). However, the challenges presented did not stop there. The one million new properties proposed by the UK government by 2020 will place an increasing pressure on councils and emergency services to respond during a flood. Likewise, Daniel asked us to consider how many times communities will flood before tactical retreat is considered, and whether the investment that is going into reducing flood risk now is going to be enough to keep pace with all these changes.

Moving on from the climate, Bruce Whyte from Glasgow Centre for Population Health gave an overview of demographic change in the years to come. Bruce explained that in Scotland there will be a staggering 85% increase in people aged 75 and over in the next 25 years. There will be more single occupied households and more single parent households in the future. When you think of this in relation to a flood event and how you evacuate elderly residents, those with disabilities living alone, and those living alone with small children, it presents another dynamic to how we think about and plan for these types of events, rather than just engineering. Bruce suggested that the success of current efforts to reduce social and health inequalities will largely determine how vulnerable or resilient to the impacts of climate change communities across Scotland will be.

Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, opened the second day by stating the importance of engaging with communities and the role of the Scottish Flood Forum in this. She spoke of the hard work of the flooding community which has encouraged 26,000 people to register to receive flood warnings through SEPA’s Floodline, and of SEPA’s new Flood Warning Development Framework (2017-2021) which will help people and communities prepare for flooding by taking the necessary actions to protect themselves, their property or their businesses. The chair of the session, Petra Biberbach from PAS also emphasised the need for partnership working and places, noting the success of the collaborative work between PAS and Adaptation Scotland on the Place Standard Tool.

Building on the theme of community action, Dan Matthews, from RAB consultants, started with a useful reminder about the importance of preparedness. Together with the Environment Agency, RAB Consultants provided an opportunity for the British Army to practice and refine the process of setting up temporary flood barriers. Dan spoke of the confidence that a community gains from seeing a professional response to protecting a community in an emergency. Following this, John Brown chair of the Falkland Flood Action Group, showed the delegates what a community can do to help themselves if they have flooded or know they are going to flood. He explained that in his role he encourages people to protect their own home, check the drains regularly and work in partnership with the Scottish Flood Forum and the Council. Phil Emonson from JBA Consulting re-iterated the importance of flood preparedness by showing how supporting communities to develop their own flood plans allows individuals to approach flood response in a calm and logical frame of mind. Phil also emphasised the importance of listening to communities’ concerns and managing their expectations. People understand you can be prepared for flooding but that “you can’t always stop or prevent flooding”.

Steven Trewhella spoke of water as a wicked problem, a coin of phrase often associated with climate change adaptation. Both require a different approach to planning and implementing solutions that acknowledges uncertainty and the long term nature of the challenge. The 2017 FRM conference covered the three cornerstones of adaptation;

  • from reducing the sensitivity through discussions on where we build and how we build;
  • to altering the exposure to the impacts of a flood through investing in PLP and signing up to flood warnings;
  • to increasing the resilience of communities by encouraging individuals to protect their home and check their insurance cover.

The conference presented the big systemic challenges we face and offered more questions than answers but it allowed the participants to think about what has worked well, what hasn’t and why. The most valuable lessons were learnt where the speakers shared the unintended and unexpected outcomes of a project or flood event, highlighting the importance of an evaluation process. One theme, however, stood out more than most this year - partnership working. As Stephen Thomson, from Transport Scotland said, no other sector in Scotland has been able to show such an effective framework for working collaboratively. Adaptation can learn a lot from the flooding community, as an exemplar for partnership working.

Sophie Turner