Scrutinising the floods
December saw some of the worst floods ever recorded in the north of England. For the first time, a major city, York, was seriously inundated. Images of floods seem to have now become a grim tradition at this time of year – floodwater cascading over breached defences, disintegrating bridges over swollen rivers, cars window-deep in water, quickly and suddenly abandoned with their hazard lights on.
Pictures of the aftermath, too, are familiar. Pavements stacked high with ruined furniture and carpet, crowned with a sodden Christmas tree. Front rooms bare except for a solitary dehumidifer. Contrite and concerned politicians. Interviews with angry residents – why was more not done to prevent it? Why wasn’t more invested in flood defence? How soon will we be able to get our lives back to normal?
When time moves on, and the cameras move with them, local people are still faced with the reality of a slow, difficult journey back to anything looking remotely like reality. Local councils can benefit from national funding through the Bellwin scheme to manage some of the immediate costs of floods – but there are other burdens on councils, and communities, that are difficult to quantify. Failed businesses, fractured communities and the uncertainty that comes with the fear that the same thing may happen again next year (or, in Cumbria’s case, next week).
People need to be supported to rebuild, and where possible lessons need to be learned to mitigate the impact of the next bout of extreme weather. Overview and scrutiny has a critical role in both of these central tasks.
The role of scrutiny in flooding and flood risk management was recognised by Government in the aftermath of the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire. The county council’s pioneering scrutiny investigation into the aftermath of that summer’s floods fed into the subsequent Pitt review, and its recommendation (later adopted) that scrutiny should play this role. Since then, a range of councils have taken advantage of the opportunity – although some have been put off by the potential scale and scope of the work, and the pressure to conduct it quickly after floods have happened. As I’ll show, none of these issues should present a big barrier to doing good scrutiny work, even in councils with minimal officer support for the function.
The legal powers available, the experience of authorities like Gloucestershire (see below) and others, and the framework of emergency planning more generally (which we explain in more detail in our policy briefing on the issue) suggest that there are three principal ways in which scrutiny can make a positive contribution.
Firstly, immediately following serious floods, local partners come together to conduct a “debrief” process. In Gloucestershire, scrutiny provided the forum for this debrief – in a public forum, partners and the public came together to think about their response to the floods and what this might mean for planning for similar events in the future. For local people, this gave them an important stake in a process which might otherwise have happened behind closed doors. The Government has recently produced guidance to assist areas to communicate more effectively on flooding communication, which could be useful for the periods both before and after flooding happens. For partners, it gave them a crucial insight into the impact on local people’s lives of floods. Managed by elected councillors, the process had independence and credibility, directly assisting in the process of learning and improvement. It’s an excellent example of scrutiny getting stuck in immediately – but it also requires that scrutiny be swift enough to put a review in place very shortly after the floods have receded. Where the resource does not exist for scrutiny itself to manage the debrief process, there should always be a formal role for non-executive councillors in that learning exercise.
Secondly, scrutiny can play its formal, statutory role in risk management in a more targeted way. It is likely that extreme weather events will become more frequent in future. As we have seen, flooding which might previously have been considered likely to occur once in a hundred or a thousand years may be more regular. This will demand changes to assumptions and plans – changes too to remediate, mitigation and prevention measures. Solutions which might previously have been seen as unnecessary, or uneconomic, might not be vital. Scrutiny can help flood risk authorities to reappraise how they look at risk and to make plans accordingly, with the help and input of local people. It can also help to knit together the plans of flood risk authorities along a single watercourse – as has happened with the Severn in particular – and to draw councils’ plans together with those of the Environment Agency.
Thirdly, scrutiny can bring an understanding of flooding concerns to bear in its work on other topics. Housing, planning, social care, environmental services – all these council services are affected by flooding, and their resilience to flooding can be tested when scrutiny comes to look at those issues. Health services, and other services provided by partners, are also vulnerable. Community resilience – the ability of people to be able to access vital services during, and in the aftermath of, floods – is critical and does not happen by chance. It can only happen with the help of local people – councillors – who understand what residents will need, and to prepare to put in place measures to help them to access those services.
Councils can’t stop floods from happening. But they, with the help of overview and scrutiny, can learn from the aftermath and mitigate some of the worst impacts, giving people the support they need to get back on their feet.
If you’re interested in undertaking scrutiny of local agencies’ response to the floods but aren’t sure where to start, we can offer some advice and assistance. Contact me on 020 7187 7369, post a comment below or drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.