IN an independent Scotland, the rain would keep falling regardless. Whether we vote yes or no in next year’s referendum, the nation’s future will likely be at least as wet as its recent past, and probably much more so. The best educated guesses are now suggesting that the floods to come will alter our landscape and our way of life to a vastly greater extent than any constitutional sea change.
Professor Alan Werritty of Dundee University is a key consultant for the Scottish Government’s Centre for Expertise on Water (CREW) and perhaps the foremost hydrologist in the country. It’s a complex subject, but he tries to keep it simple.
“Climate change is happening,” says Werritty. “Scotland will be exposed to higher levels of flooding. And the cost of engineering conventional defences will be so astronomical that they are simply not credible. So what we’ve got to do is learn to live with floods.” To that end, he says, we’ve still got a long way to go, though perhaps not as far as England and Wales. Devolution has allowed the Executive to start making its own contingency plans, and Werritty considers the Flood Risk Management Act of 2009 “a huge step in the right direction”.
By the end of this year, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) will publish new flood maps to identify those areas most vulnerable to the worst effects of projected weather patterns. Insurance, however, is a reserved matter, and that first and last form of protection is itself now under threat: the long-standing “statement of principles” on UK-wide flood cover will expire at the end of this month. The Association of British Insurers (IBI) recently extended the present terms until July 31, but at time of writing there is remains a stalemate between the industry and the treasury, as Westminster refuses to make up any shortfall in compensation for the rising cost of storm-related water damage.
If a new agreement can’t be reached, the whole of Great Britain may soon become an “open market”, in which insurers could massively inflate premiums or simply refuse cover to homes and businesses across flood-prone regions. “And if that happens, property values will collapse and those areas will be blighted,” says David Crichton, a former insurance insider turned freelance flood risk consultant. According to Crichton, a renewal of the old agreement would be almost as bad for Scotland.
In his view, this country’s property owners now pay a disproportionate share of the general pool for UK flood insurance, effectively subsidising “less responsible planning” south of the border – and especially in London, where building along the Thames Estuary continues largely unchecked, while development in Scottish floodplains has been restricted for almost 20 years. Crichton has actually made a list of “42 ways” in which Scotland’s flood risk is better managed than England’s, each of which might easily be made to sound like ammunition for nationalists.
“I don’t want to make that argument one way or the other,” says Crichton. “I’m just worried that the industry is so London-centric that they are liable to forget about us. It’s not necessary to go the whole hog for independence, but we do have to stand up and get a fairer deal for Scotland.” He recently petitioned the Scottish Parliament to this effect, and MSPs debated the matter last month in a session lasting several hours. “I doubt they’ve ever had such a one-sided debate,” says Crichton, by which he means that members tended to agree with him. Many recounted stories told to them by constituents who had suffered flooding in Stonehaven, Brechin, Angus North, and Cowdenbeath.
Some also made the point that those floods had literally brought the risk home to people in affected communities while also penalising them with tenfold hikes in their insurance premiums and excesses. For Crichton, a longer-term worry is that those rates might soon return to “normal”, where they should instead be serving as an early warning system for prospective property owners in vulnerable areas. “If buyers fall in love with a house, the high cost of flood insurance might be the first thing to alert them that the property is at risk. But if that cost is subsidised by people living in safe areas, they might well go ahead and buy it, which will just encourage the developers to build more of the same.”
And while Crichton thinks the current picture in Scotland is “generally good”, he also worries that the government and local authorities might soon “backslide” on their recent progress, especially as austerity cuts begin to bite into planning and staffing budgets. From a hydrological perspective, Alan Werritty points to recent developments on the Leith waterfront as a potential example of commercial imperatives trumping good judgement and best practice. At the same time, says Werritty, “with new buildings you can be quite inventive, and make use of the latest technologies”.
“The tricky thing is that a lot of Scotland’s present housing stock is effectively in the wrong place, and of the wrong quality. We still have a historical legacy of unwise encroachment into flood plains, and many properties that were built to standards that are now antique and inadequate. Until those buildings are replaced, true flood resilience is going to be tough. In 50 years it might be achievable, but it’s going to take leadership and political will, which seem to be in short supply.”
It is also going to take a leap of imagination on the part of the Scottish public. When Werritty says that we should be thinking more like Bangladesh, or Holland, “societies that have lived with flooding for a very long time”, it’s worth bearing in mind that Dutch architects are now designing almost science-fictional prototype houses on stilts or flotation chambers as entirely viable measures for the future. In this country, he admits, many residents on the front lines do not know that home flood defence is their own statuary responsibility. They’re not even aware of the simple measures they can take to keep water out of their houses, though door barriers, air brick covers and other such products are now being urgently recommended by the Scottish Flood Forum (SFF). SFF director Paul Hendy sees the agency itself is evidence of “a real commitment to reducing flood risk in this country”.
“But there are also communities and individuals who take an ostrich approach, says Hendy. “They think it won’t happen to them, until it actually does. So we do have a motivation problem.” According to Hendy, the most pro-active citizens are always those with recent, painful, first-hand experience. And for the experts, this begs the broader cognitive question of how to make people understand the full personal and social impact of flooding without them actually having to suffer though it.
“I don’t have an answer that,” says Alan Werritty. “We’re into the realm of human psychology, and how people perceive risk. “When you ask someone their biggest concerns in life, ‘flooding’ won’t be a priority unless it has affected them. Given all the pressures on people at the moment, especially with the economy, most will say they have bigger things to worry about than the chance of a one-in-100 year flood. “And unfortunately, it tends to be the flood survivors who are most aware that it’s just as likely to happen tomorrow as it is 100 years from now.”