Floods policy is more than a knee-jerk response to crisis

One billion people, a sixth of the world’s population, currently live in the path of potential major flood disasters, according to a recent report from the UN University in Tokyo. In Britain, dramatic flooding of rivers has become a regular feature of evening news programmes. And each time major flooding occurs in the UK, the public demands an immediate response from the authorities.

ESRC-funded research at the University of Middlesex has examined the process by which floods policy has changed in response to four major floods over the past 60 years. The researchers concluded that these changes do not usually reflect ‘new’ policy ideas or changes in policy direction. More often they provide an opportunity for key actors to speed up the implementation of existing policy ideas, and they are driven by a range of factors connected to the social/economic context in which the flood occurs.

“Policymakers dealing with monitoring and forecasting extreme events need to understand how we have developed policy responses to past events,” says Sylvia Tunstall, a member of the research team. “At times of major climatic events, policymakers come under immense pressure to act,” she says. “Our research demonstrates that policy change is driven as much by the prevailing attitudes of key players, current technological resources and the social and economic values of the time, as by a simple response to the crisis itself.’

The research findings, which will be presented at the Environment and Human Behaviour seminar in London during Social Science Week, show how policy towards flooding in England and Wales has changed significantly over the past fifty years, ranging from the introduction of flood warning systems and investment in sea defences following the 1953 floods to recent developments in policy on land use planning.

The Middlesex study examined how particular policy ideas emerged as changes in policy as a result of the major floods in 1947, 1953, 1998 and 2000. “In 1947 and 1953 the main debate was on protecting agricultural productivity by the defence and drainage of agricultural land, but in 1998 and 2000 it was thought by some that agricultural land use practices themselves contributed to the widespread flooding,” says Sylvia Tunstall. “Our model shows the complex influences on these policy developments and suggests that a crisis often provides an opportunity for people who have been trying to push an idea forward to achieve their goals. Policymakers need to take all these factors into account when planning for future events.”

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