Reset planning policy to ban developers from building new homes in high-risk flood areas -Think Tank urges

Exeter, Teignbridge and East Devon are among the 5% of local authority districts in England with the highest percentage of properties at risk of flooding. In Exeter, for example, more than 10% of properties are at risk.

Planning for climate change and flood resilience 

Housing secretary Michael Gove should reset planning policy to ban developers from building thousands of new homes in high-risk flood areas, the think-tank Localis has argued.  In a report published today entitled ‘Plain Dealing – building for flood resilience’ the place experts set out how deepening climate change pressures and rising housing demand have resulted in an increase in flooding on properties in at risk areas.

In original research undertaken for the report, Localis discovered that almost 200 planning permissions have been granted on floodplain land so far this year for some 5,283 new homes in the highest-risk local authorities in the country, the overwhelming majority some 4,255 in areas pre-identified as highly likely to flood.

Among its key recommendations, Localis calls for government commitment to empowering communities to manage flood risk locally in a ‘resilient’ way that allows them to pursue their local ecological, economic and social goals. In this context resilience means flood strategies that focus on living with floods instead of just preventing them and involve a flexible approach to flooding and a rapid recovery from inundation.

Other report recommendations for policy and regulatory changes include suggestions to: –

  • Make developers liable for the sustainability and insurability of any new developments built in floodplain areas.
  • Support effective collaboration between the public, private and civil society with the aim of reinvigorating and re-incentivising flood insurance schemes and partnerships – for example comprehensive risk management in at risk urban regeneration zones.

In Detail

The report notes that Exeter, Teignbridge and East Devon are in the top half of the top 10% of local authority districts in England with the highest percentage of properties at risk of flooding (i.e. in the 5% of districts most at risk). In Exeter, for example, more than 10% of properties are at risk.

The report also paints a gloomy picture of the ability of the current planning system to stop making the problem worse: under resourcing; divided responsibilities amongst multiple agencies and lack of overall control.

Read this extract from the Executive Summary:

Problems with the current system

While national planning policy in England should steer development away from current flood risk areas and advises that future risk should be considered, at present there is no clear policy for how local authorities should effectively account for the flood risk associated with increasing climate change in plans and development decisions. Thus, faced with competing interests and institutional agendas such as constraints on building on protected land (e.g. the green belt around urban areas in England) and pressure to meet national housing targets, local authorities frequently permit new developments in flood zones. The complex nature of this issue – local authorities, under-resourced and under pressure to deliver housing targets, working in something of a grey area – highlights the asymmetrical central-local relationship that exists in this area of governance. 

There is a huge mismatch between central and local relations regarding flood risk management, one affecting the entire journey from local plan to development control. This has led to data gaps, a lack of ambition and subsequent lack of effective action and change. Complexity is borne from the multitude of bodies involved in flood risk and service management. In England, local authorities are responsible for housing (district councils in county/district areas), with the county council (if it is a two-tier authority) responsible as the statutory consultee for surface water drainage. Meanwhile the EA is responsible for flood risk and a private water company is responsible for drainage. When there is an emergency, these roles are slightly different and don’t align in the same manner. The district council is responsible for evacuation, with the county council focusing on provision of alternate accommodation. 

The defunding of local authorities since 2010 has naturally had an impact on the ability of councils to manage this complex issue. Just 12 percent of local authorities strongly agree that they have the skills and expertise to take account of flood risk now and in the future in planning decisions. Despite over 60 percent of councils declaring climate emergencies, local authorities have a critical shortage of skills and expertise in relation to planning for climate change. For example, only two percent of local authorities are considering future insurance availability and affordability when making planning decisions, and only a third of local authorities are seriously considering the impacts of climate change when deciding whether to grant planning permission. As local decision-makers, it is paramount that local authority planning departments are better resourced to deal with the flood risk challenges they are facing, both now and into the future.