Despite the deluge, is flood protection stronger and better funded in Scotland?

Cumbria: Flooded again

By Dr John Robertson

After days of extensive coverage of flooding across the North of England, the UK Government and the Environment Agency have been heavily criticised.

BBC News reports, though based on events in England only, mostly referred to the UK and Britain requiring ‘a complete rethink’. Maps showing flood defence schemes only in England were again referred to as showing these in the ‘UK’ or ‘Britain’. As the floods peaked, in England, from 27th to 29th December, BBC 1 News was often entirely dominated by these events. A SEPA representative warned on Reporting Scotland of what could be ‘widespread flooding’ on the 30th and 31st.

Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

As Storm Frank struck Scotland on the 30th December, I was asleep. Waking up in Ayr, around 8am, it seemed to have gone, leaving only a few puddles behind it. I knew it would be causing more damage elsewhere, so I watched the TV and internet updates throughout the day. Dumfries had its usual flooding but nothing new there, thousands had been evacuated as a precaution in one or two other towns and 5,000 homes were without power. Locals across the country had uploaded pictures of sometimes quite shallow or very localised flooding of the kind we get often.

Reporting Scotland at 6.45pm, delayed by an extended network BBC1 News on the English floods, had fascinating images of surging rivers, one mobile home floating away on the Dee and folk in Ballater rescued from their houses. They opened with ‘Storm Frank has caused major disruption across Scotland’ and the news that ‘hundreds’ of people had to leave their homes. Awful for them, I know, but only ‘hundreds’ really? We also met one family, unable to get to their grandparent’s house and collect their child. There was also, the case of a bus, just the one, trapped in floodwater for a time and one, only one, passenger to be interviewed.

Pretty distressing for all those affected, but I couldn’t help thinking it was much less dramatic than the stories from York, Carlisle and much of Northern England. There I saw flooding over the tops of cars, major bridges down and repeated shots of property-owners in tears and angry with the government. Now, as I understand it, storms Fred and Edna had hit England no harder than they were to hit Scotland yet the damage seemed much worse there. In the Independent on the 28th, George Monbiot reported on 2000 homes and 400 businesses damaged in Leeds alone. In York alone, he described 500 soldiers on duty with a further 1000 ready to be deployed.

Now obviously, BBC 1 News will focus on English events and ‘extreme’ may not mean the same thing in the two countries but, objectively, the damage was demonstrably worse in England. Flooded roads and carparks and people evacuated are bad but the complete ruination of a home or a business, sometimes more than once in a month and often in the previous year too, is an altogether worse thing. Further, none of this is really new, as the media seemed to be suggesting. The summer 2007 floods in England and Wales resulted in 55,000 properties being flooded. Around 7,000 were rescued from flood waters and 13 people lost their lives.

So maybe, the headline on Reporting Scotland could have been: ‘Scotland battered but unbowed by Storm Frank as defences and rescue plans do their job effectively’. Naïve perhaps but read on to see why it would have been fair recognition of what has been achieved here in Scotland.

Comparing Storm and Flood Protection in Scotland and England

As far back as 2006, researchers at the English College of Estates Management, whose patron is HRH Prince of Wales, made a number of highly encouraging comments about the achievements of the Labour-run Scottish Executive, SEPA and the Local Authorities:

‘In 1993, storms over Scotland exceeded the severity of storms over the South-East of England, however little damage resulted. This is because the Building (Scotland) Act, 2003 has introduced tougher building standards, thus buildings in Scotland are constructed to reflect the harsher conditions: and thus damage and subsequent insurance claims are significantly reduced.

Unknown-1As far as flood protection is concerned, unlike in England, the 1 in 200 year standard of protection is ‘universal’ for all new buildings, with a 1,000 year standard for such vulnerable uses as old people’s homes, schools, hospitals etc.. In addition, construction in flood hazard areas has almost completely ended. Crichton (2003: 26) estimates that “the active flood management programme currently in progress will result in almost all high risk properties being protected against the 200-year flood within the next three years, taking climate change into account.” It is also interesting to note that the Scottish Executive grants for flood defences have never been refused on the grounds of budget restraints and there is no rationing of flood defence spending.

It is clear, however, that the more stringent building standards which are applied in Scotland ensure that severe storms result in much less property damage than comparable events in England. Also the level of flood protection and the commitment of funding to achieve flood protection are higher in Scotland than in England.’

More recently, the favourable comparison still seems to hold. Published research from the esteemed Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in 2012, seems to support my first impressions quite strongly:

‘Where English planning regulations permit building in flood plains where there is no alternative, Scottish Planning Policy does not permit building in areas in which ‘the flood risk exceeds the 200 year return period’, i.e. where in any year there is a greater than 0.5 per cent probability of flooding. Scotland has stronger regulations governing the capacity of sewage and drainage systems for new building. It also has stronger minimum standards for flood defences. Building regulations ensuring flood resilience in the housing stock are more developed. Scottish planners, through Flood Liaison and Advice Groups, are engaged with local communities, the emergency services, insurers and other interested parties in drawing up flood plans. The differences in regulatory regimes between England and Scotland are reflected in the number of households that are at risk of flooding, and the resilience of communities in responding to those risks.’

The level of investment will be one factor in these differences. In recent years, spending in England and Wales has declined seriously after significant increases under Labour in 1997 to 2010, as revealed in a UK Parliament Briefing Paper from this year:

‘Central Government spending on flood defence in 2010-11 was cut soon after the Coalition Government was formed. Spending was reduced in one year by £30 million or 5%. In the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (2011-12 to 2014-15), a total of £2.17 billion in central government funding was provided for flood and coastal defence. This represented “a six percent fall in central government funding”, The Committee on Climate Change calculated that this represented a real term cut of around 20% compared to the previous spending period.’

In sharp contrast, for Scotland, we see in a Scottish Parliament Committee Paper for 2014-2015, evidence of increasing investment:

‘With regard to flood protection and alleviation, the Committee welcomes the cash terms increases in the funding available to SEPA, and to the Natural Assets and Flooding  budget, both of which sit in the RAE portfolio. The Committee believes that, due to climate change, severe weather events will become increasingly likely in Scotland in years to come, and it is therefore essential that flood forecasting and warning systems be as accurate and robust as possible. The Committee welcomes the increased funding for flood forecasting and warning in the RAE portfolio and recommends that the Scottish Government continue to ensure sufficient funding is available to improve flood forecasting and warning systems, to ensure greater consistency across the whole of Scotland.’

Environmental Leadership in Scotland and England

Effectiveness of any agency is at least in part due to the commitment and the values of its leadership team. The Chairman of the Environment Agency, Sir Philip Dilley, who was holidaying  in his ‘Sprawling £1m Barbados mansion’ (Daily Mail 30th December), at the time of the floods earns £100,000 a year for a three-day week. He was until April the chairman of Arup, an engineering firm that has been employed to write environmental reports on fracking for Cuadrilla – the company hoping to become the first to exploit Britain’s shale gas resources.

Dilley’s colleague, David Rooke, Executive Director for Flood and Coast Risk Management, received a bumper pay package worth between £395,000 and £400,000 in the last financial year. These earnings included a salary and performance bonus in the band between £150,000 and £155,000, up by at least £15,000 on the previous year – despite all the bitter controversies of the agency’s response to flooding in the West Country last year. In addition, according to the agency’s annual report, Rooke was granted pension benefits worth £238,000, up from £67,000 the year before.

His Scottish equivalent, chief executive of SEPA, is Terry A’Hearn.  A’Hearn has a lifetime’s experience in leading environmental agencies and no apparent income from other interests. His predecessor earned £125 000 for presumably 5 days per week.

Unknown-2Beyond these lead agencies, there may be further evidence of elite groups in England controlling policy on water to suit their interests rather than those of citizens.  In the Guardian on the 30th December, George Monbiot introduced me to an aspect I had not known of – the consequences of field and grouse moor drainage for those of us downstream. He wrote:

‘These floods were not just predictable; they were predicted. There were clear and specific warnings that the management of land upstream of the towns now featuring in the news would lead to disaster.  Internal drainage boards (only in England and Wales), which are public bodies but tend to be mostly controlled by landowners – often prioritise the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream. By straightening, embanking and dredging rivers where they cut through fields, the boards accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely. When heavy rain falls, some land must flood. We have a choice: fields or cities. And all over Britain, we have chosen badly.’

In Scotland, the relevant act describes the situation as: ‘SEPA identified as the competent authority. The Bill provides SEPA and local authorities with powers of entry to enable them to undertake important flood risk assessment and management work.’ I’ve been unable to find evidence of Scottish grouse moor drainage flooding towns though I notice that moor-surrounded Ballater had a bit of flooding today.

Finally on this, Scottish local authorities don’t always get good press but here’s quite a tribute from Professors Edmund C. Penning-Rowsell of the Flood Hazard Research Centre, at Middlesex University and Alan Werrity of Dundee University in October 2008:

‘In general, local authorities in Scotland have acted very responsibly in dealing with flooding issues, especially in contrast with authorities in England.  As a result, the problems of flooding in Scotland are very much less than those in England.’

Further Benefits for Home Insurers in Scotland

The apparently superior approach of authorities in Scotland to problems of storm damage and flooding has attracted a bonus for property insurers. A WWF report in 2007 explains:

‘Scotland was the first European country to incorporate the European Directive into law through the Water Environment Water Services (Scotland) Act (2003). That legislation imposes a duty on local authorities to promote sustainable solutions to flooding. From January 2006, flood insurance was no longer guaranteed to households in areas of high flood risk in the UK. Scottish properties are being treated differently because of the progressive approach to sustainable flood management encouraged by the 2003 Water Environment Water Services (Scotland) Act.’

Less pleasingly for Scots, some insurance companies have been taking unfair advantage of Scotland’s low claim society. From a Joseph Rowntree Report in 2012, this summarises the differences being taken advantage of:

‘Despite higher rainfall north of the border, communities in Scotland face substantially lower flood risks. While 5 per cent of Scottish households are at a 0.5 per cent flood risk in Scotland, 23 per cent of households in the England face a higher 1.0 per cent risk.’

In the Scotsman in May 2013, Andrew Whitaker clarified this abuse:

‘Households in Scotland could be subsidising flood insurance on English properties by as much as £430 a year, according to MSPs. Environment minister Paul Wheelhouse has called on UK ministers to strike a new deal with insurers to reflect the lower risk of flooding in Scotland. Insurers estimate that around one in four households in England is at risk of flooding (23.1 per cent), against around one in 20 in Scotland (4.5 per cent). Riskier homes are cross-subsidised by those in safer areas, meaning that a “disproportionate share” of the premiums is paid by Scottish households.’

So, unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government has maintained or bettered the investment and the sophistication in flood prevention here. Had I been writing in 2006, the Labour-controlled Scottish Executive would have rightly claimed any credit for performance north of the border. In 2015, the SNP-controlled Scottish Parliament can do the same. Will BBC Scotland allow them to do it? I doubt it.

Dr John Robertson, December 31st, 2015


College of Estates Management at:

UK Parliament Briefing Paper at:

Scottish Parliament Paper at:

Scottish Act on Control of Flood water at:

WWF Report at:

Joseph Rowntree Foundation at:

Scotsman piece of costs of insurance at:

Professor Penning-Rowsell at: