The head of the Environment Agency today made a barnstorming speech on flooding. He is making the right noises about tackling the climate emergency. That’s welcome. But he still thinks housing can be built in high risk flood areas.

Sir James Bevan didn’t speak about his own agency applying the lax national planning rules in a lax manner. According to a joint investigation by the Guardian and Greenpeace’s Unearthed news unit, 764 homes in our county are due to built in Flood Zone 3 – which has the highest risk of flooding – between 2015 and 2018. That’s one in twenty homes built in Shropshire.

National planning rules say that housing shouldn’t be built in the floodplain if there are alternative sites available. But we don’t routinely do this in Shropshire and many other counties. Homes are planned at Linney House in Ludlow. The number of houses has been reduced but they are still in the floodplain.

The location for new homes at Linney House

The developer plans to reprofile the land. But this will reduce the floodplain and increase flooding downstream because water must go somewhere. Planning rules say that councils must apply a sequential test before approving housing or other developments in flood zones. Only if there is absolutely nowhere else to build, can the floodplain be used. But we are not short of places to build homes in Ludlow. We have several hundred approved and waiting to be built. Yet Shropshire Council has approved homes at Linney House and looks set to approve a revised application because the Environment Agency doesn’t object.

Thinktank Bright Blue estimates at least 70,000 homes have been built in Flood Zone 3, the land with the greatest risk of flooding, since 2008. The pressure to build housing seems to be as forceful as the water that has inundated thousands of homes in recent months. And at least 11,400 new homes are still planned in high risk flood areas.

If Sir James Bevan means what he says, he should ensure that the Environment Agency is a tough watchdog. He needs to give it the teeth to tell councils not to build in the floodplain. So far, the agency hasn’t done that.

Extracts from speech by Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency

The full speech.

“Welcome to the climate emergency. The patterns of weather we have seen over the last few years – more frequent and more violent storms, much higher rainfall totals, bigger tides on top of rising sea levels, weather bombs like the one that detonated over Wales and the West Midlands last week – these are exactly what the science predicted would happen. Now it is happening and it falls to us to deal with it.

“And the dangers are rising, as the climate emergency brings more extreme weather, more frequent storms, more rain and more flood risk. Unless we act now, more communities will flood more often and more seriously.

“And for all those who cherish the myth that the Environment Agency is a bunch of crazed ecozealots who don’t dredge rivers because we care more about newts than people, let me just say this: reducing flood risk will also involve dredging.

“While hard defences will continue to play a vital role in helping to keep people and places safe, even more important for reducing flood risk in future is managing the flow of water through the environment. And the best way to do that – as George Eustice has also argued – is through natural methods – planting trees to retain water when it rains, restoring artificially straightened rivers to their natural curves to slow the flow of water, making space on land for water to collect there rather than flood communities, creating wetland habitats that hold water and enhance biodiversity.

“As the population grows, we are likely to see the number of properties in the flood plain almost double over the next 50 years. But the clue is in the name: flood plain. So we can and should insist that development only happens there if there is no real alternative, that any such development doesn’t increase other people’s flood risk.

“There’s a lot here to worry about: the Jaws of Death, the Floods of Doom, the Climate Crisis.

“The right policies, the right innovation, the right attitude, the right lifestyle – all of these are in our gift. And that means that we can make our country resilient to flooding, we can avoid water shortages, we can end the climate emergency, and we can make this world an even better place to live.”

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