Creating Climate Resilient Places: a new direction for a nation

Environment Agency  ‘Speech by Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive, Environment Agency at the Flood and Coast 2020 Digital Conference.


I’m very pleased to be joining you all this morning for this exciting and innovative edition of Flood and Coast, and am privileged to be sitting at least virtually alongside such an esteemed host and panel. Thank you for inviting me, and thank you in particular to our friends and partners at CIWEM for leading this year’s Flood and Coast Event: for obvious reasons, it hasn’t been easy – but it is a success.

The climate emergency is a game changer   It is bringing more extreme weather, more frequent storms, more rain and more flood risk. In these circumstances more communities will flood more often, and there will be some places which will become effectively impossible to protect. So we need a new approach. And we need it quickly, because our thinking needs to change faster than the climate. 

What’s new about the Environment Agency flood strategy   That new thinking is what the new EA Flood Strategy, approved last month by Parliament, seeks to deliver. I am sure everyone in this audience can quote all 118 pages of the Strategy backwards. But for everyone else, here’s the short version of what you need to know. The Strategy contains a lot that is new, indeed revolutionary. Let me single out the five most important new things: 

Resilience as well as protection. While we must and will continue to build and maintain strong defences to reduce the risk of flooding, in the face of climate change we also need to make our places more resilient so that when flooding and coastal change does happen it causes less harm to people, does less damage, and life can get back to normal quicker. After floods we need to build back better, so properties, infrastructure and the local economy are better able to cope with future flooding. We need to design our houses, cities and infrastructure to be more resilient to the more violent weather climate change is bringing.

Not just hard defences: Hard defences will still be at the heart of our approach to flood risk. But they will no longer be enough on their own. We will need a broader range of actions to ensure climate resilient places. That includes avoiding the wrong development in the flood plain; taking a whole catchment approach to how we manage water, to reduce the risks of both flooding and drought; using nature-based solutions to slow the flow of rivers and store flood waters upstream away from communities; better preparation for and response to flooding through timely and effective forecasting, warning and evacuation; and more property level protection.

 Even greater emphasis on tackling climate change. Mitigating the extent of climate change and adapting to its consequences is a fundamental part of reducing the risk of flooding and coastal erosion. As the Prime Minister has said, there are opportunities for the UK to be a world leader here, including by delivering the government’s target of making the UK net zero for greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The EA is playing its part in that: we aim to be a net zero organisation by 2030.

Greater emphasis on growth. The Strategy aims to ensure all spending on flood and coastal resilience contributes to job creation and sustainable growth in local places. One of the points about flood defence is that it’s great value for money: for every £1 we invest we save £5 or more in damages avoided; and done right it generates jobs, growth, prosperity and enhances nature – all of which are doubly important as we seek a green recovery after Coronavirus.

Protecting ourselves against flooding is everyone’s job. The EA has and will continue to have a key role to play: we build, maintain and operate flood defences; warn and inform communities when flooding threatens; and come to their aid when it happens. The government has and will continue to have a key role to play too: it sets the overall flood policy for the nation and it funds most of the work to deliver it. But we will only succeed in future in managing the growing levels of flood risk, and tackling all the other effects of the climate emergency, if we all do our bit. The Strategy seeks to build a nation of people who all understand their own flood risk, their responsibility for managing it, and what they need to do to succeed.

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