I’m delighted to be joining you for this year’s Flood and Coast conference. Thank you to our friends at CIWEM and our sponsoring partners for all you have done to make this year’s event happen.
Older members of this audience may recognise the title phrase of this speech – “when the levee breaks”. It comes from a song of the same name performed by the rock group Led Zeppelin on an album they released in 1971. But the song itself was actually written a lot further back than that, in the late 1920s, by a blues singer called Memphis Minnie. It’s about the Great Mississippi flood of 1927 and the key line from the song is: “Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good/When the levee breaks, mama, you’ve got to move”. I’ll get to that in minute.
But let me start with the mantra they drill into you at Harvard Business School, which is this: “the main thing is to ensure that the main thing really is the main thing.” The main thing for all of us – and the world - is the climate emergency.
And that requires urgent action, right now. Success requires commitment from all quarters. It needs direction and a plan. It needs partnership and collaboration. It needs us to overcome institutional barriers. It needs funding. It needs political will. In fact moving to a low-carbon society and adapting to climate change will require herculean efforts by all of us - governments, businesses, the third sector and people like you and me both in our day to day jobs and through our individual lifestyle choices. Across all of these players, the penny is certainly dropping – we get it, you get it, the government gets it and most importantly of all, ordinary citizens are increasingly getting it too.
The good news is that by working together, we can rise to the climate challenge. It’s great to see the UK government leading by example and putting net zero at the heart of its plans for a greener and cleaner economy. It is equally essential we get ready for the unavoidable impacts of climate change by taking action now to adapt and help the nation to become more resilient.
As a country we already face major challenges from the more violent weather which our changing climate is causing. More frequent and more extreme flooding and storm surges are becoming the new normal and are already posing greater risks to lives, infrastructure and property. In the seven years I have been chief executive of the Environment Agency I have seen first-hand the devastating impacts flooding can have on peoples’ lives, their homes, their livelihoods, and their mental health. The severity of these flood events appears to be getting worse, which is exactly what the science predicts. And the events last summer in London were a stark reminder of the major challenges associated with surface water flooding following intense, localised downpours in heavily urbanised areas.
And the future may be a lot worse: the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change predicts that a global sea level rise of 2 metres by 2100 cannot be ruled out. Imagine that, and remember as you do that most communities in Britain are sited at or near our current sea level.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we have a strategy to deal with this: our Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy which we developed with the government and with many of you in 2020. Our work also sits hand in hand with the government’s flood policy statement. The long-term Strategy vision is one we can all sign up to: a nation ready for, and resilient to, flooding and coastal change – today, tomorrow and to the year 2100.
Better still, we have a plan to deliver that vision: a Roadmap to 2026 that we are launching today. This sets out the practical actions we will take to achieve the ambitions in the Strategy and tackle the growing threat of flooding from rivers, the sea, and surface water as well as coastal erosion. It also sets out how we will deliver a host of wider benefits, including local nature recovery, carbon reduction and more integrated water management to help with both flood and drought resilience.
And best of all, we have designed and are going to deliver this Roadmap together. The partners who are helping steer it include the Association of Drainage Authorities (ADA), the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport from the country’s local authorities (ADEPT), the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM), Flood Re, the Local Government Association (LGA), the National Farmers Union (NFU), the National Flood Forum (NFF), National Highways (NH), Natural England (NE), Water UK and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).
Underpinning the Strategy, our Roadmap and everything else we are doing to tackle flood risk are three elements:
Let me expand on each of those.
Protecting people and places from flooding and coastal change is and will remain a cornerstone of all our efforts to tackle climate impacts. And let’s start by recognising an important fact: flood defence works.
The government investment of the last several years has done exactly what it was supposed to: despite heavier and more frequent storms and rainfall, proportionately fewer and fewer properties have flooded.
The statistics bear this out. In summer 2007, 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded, with over 100,000 properties protected. As we have built more, and more effective, flood defences, the proportion of homes flooded in high rainfall events has dropped. During the winter of 2019/20 – which included the wettest February on record and water levels in some places higher than the floods of 2007, over 4,500 properties flooded but almost 130,000 properties were protected by our defences. In February 2022 - when for the first time we had three named storms in the same week - some 400 properties flooded but around 35,000 did not.
Much of the reason for those improved figures was the 2015–2021 flood defence investment programme, under which the government invested £2.6bn to better protect 300,000 homes. The EA successfully delivered that programme on time, on budget, and above target: we actually protected 314,000 homes.
So traditional flood defence does work. But in order to answer the even bigger challenges ahead, we need to do things differently. And our thinking needs to change faster than the climate. We need to move away from reliance on traditional concrete and steel and develop new techniques that use far less carbon-intensive materials. And we need to work with nature rather than against it, using natural flood management methods wherever we can. We are doing both of those things in the new multi-year capital building programme which will invest double the amount of money - £5.2bn – in some 2000 new projects to better protect communities by 2027.
We are also doing much more now than simply aiming to protect communities. In addition, we are seeking to ensure that they are more resilient in the face of climate change and the higher flood risk that brings. That involves, among other things:
What this work is doing is helping ensure that when flooding and coastal change happens, it causes much less harm to people, does much less damage, and ensures life can get back to normal much quicker.
But let’s be honest: resilience is a harder sell than protection. Most people, for reasons we all understand, would prefer to be assured that they will never be at risk of flooding rather than have the ability to bounce back quickly when it happens. That is an assurance that we all know we cannot provide. Nature will always be stronger than us, particularly as the effects of climate change inevitably intensify over the next decade. What we can say is that we will always do our best to protect lives and property, to prevent flooding happening in the first place, to limit its impact when it does happen to the minimum, and that we will work with communities to devise innovative solutions that work for them.
Hence the new £200 million Flood & Coastal Resilience Innovation Programme, which Minister Pow referred to earlier. Thanks to government funding from this programme, we are working with local authorities who are leading 25 pioneering projects to tackle the threat of flooding and coastal change in innovative ways.
Each project will help communities improve their flood resilience from the sea, rivers, groundwater and surface water, while collecting evidence on the costs and benefits to inform future investment. And in doing so they will be testing new technologies, new approaches to green finance, more integrated water solutions as well as better ways of including a diverse range of community voices.
Let me come now to the hardest of all inconvenient truths, which is this: in the long term, climate change means that some of our communities – both in this country and around the world - cannot stay where they are. That is because while we can come back safely and build back better after most river flooding, there is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water. Which means that in some places the right answer - in economic, strategic and human terms - will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try and protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level. Which brings me back to Led Zeppelin and Memphis Minnie: we don’t want to wait for the levee to break for communities to realise they’ve got to move.
Any relocation of communities would of course be controversial. So let me say three things right now for the avoidance of doubt. First, our aim should be to ensure that wherever possible we help our coastal communities remain where they are and thrive; and with the right interventions over the coming years I think we can achieve that for most of the coastal communities in this country as far ahead as we can reasonably foresee. Second, it is far too early to say which communities are likely to need to move in due course, still less make any decisions. And third, that when we do eventually get to decisions on any relocation of communities, they must take full account of the views of the people who live there: no-one should be forced from their homes against their will.
But we do need to start the conversation now about the options, not least because we owe it to the threatened communities themselves to help them decide what they want their long-term future to be. And we do need to explore the biggest possible range of options and be prepared to innovate if we are to offer communities the best set of choices.
Which is why the new Coastal Transition Accelerator Programme, a joint Defra and Environment Agency initiative to explore innovative approaches to coastlines where the coastal erosion challenges are really significant, is so important.
In places like Happisburgh in North Norfolk and parts of the East Riding coastline we are working with the local authorities and residents to plan for the long term, while also trialling some immediate actions that support the long-term resilience of communities near the coast. These include:
The EA run the programme, and the government has provided both substantial funding - £36 million over 6 years – and strong political support, led from the front by Minister Pow. The initiative will help support and strengthen the long term planning already in place in every coastal community through the Shoreline Management Plans which the EA develops with local authorities to identify the most sustainable approach to managing flood and coastal erosion risks.
All of these interventions – better protection against flooding and coastal erosion; better resilience when it happens; and readiness to relocate when there is no long term alternative – have one thing in common: that they will all be better when they are designed and delivered as a common endeavour, bringing everyone with a stake in the outcome together rather than as a take-it-or-leave it solution handed down by the Environment Agency.
That is why I want to end these remarks by saluting all of you and the organisations you represent – the government, the local authorities, businesses, NGOs, citizens’ groups – for the way in which you and we are coming together to tackle one of the biggest challenges of our lifetimes. None of us is as good as all of us, and if we stick together I am confident that we can turn the climate crisis into an opportunity to create better places and a better future for all.