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We need a focus on social protection

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The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent supplement with LGC, Mapping Climate Change, highlighted how climate change may lead to disadvantage across the UK, with some people and places likely to suffer worse effects from flooding and heatwaves than others due to being more vulnerable.

This week JRF is publishing new research which examines how far flood investment is following the areas we have identified as most ‘flood disadvantaged’.
These are the parts of the country that face both high exposure to either surface water or river and coastal flooding and crucially also have highly socially vulnerable communities.

These communities may suffer more in floods due to having a high proportion of older people or people in poor health who are more sensitive to the effects of
flooding, facing increased exposure due to their built or natural environment, such as living in basement flats or areas with no space to absorb surface water run-off, or struggling to cope when floods occur - for example, not having flood insurance or lacking social networks to help in a crisis.

The report shows there is no particular alignment between planned expenditure and the extent of flood disadvantage in a local authority. Overall it found:

  • There are 249 most flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods across 104 of the 326 local authority districts and unitaries in England
  • Only 100 of the 1,493 schemes in the investment pipeline were in these most flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods
  • The average investment per local authority per household protected was £6,610, but areas with fewer flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods were in some cases due to receive higher spending than those with more; the average investment per household protected for authorities with one flood disadvantaged neighbourhood was £10,894 compared with £8,148 for local authorities with seven flood disadvantaged neighbourhoods
  • Almost half (47.8%) or £2bn of total planned investment is for local authorities with no neighbourhoods at significant flood disadvantage; ie none of their neighbourhoods have both high exposure and high social vulnerability.

While national flood investment is in part driven by levels of exposure, the current approach also allows some uplift in government support for planned investment for deprived areas. However, JRF research again found no particular alignment between investment levels and levels of deprivation. Only 13% of
schemes were planned in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods compared to 66% in the 60% least deprived.

The government’s national allocation of investment is informed by a cost-benefit approach to maximise value for money (VFM). However, this focus on economic efficiency may be failing to consider the overall effectiveness of investment in supporting the most vulnerable communities in the long term. The VFM approach arguably takes insufficient account of the wider effects of flooding which are harder to quantify and the resultant onward costs to the state when floods occur, such as for housing displaced people or health impacts. To reduce risks long-term we need to find ways to improve flood resilience in these areas where social vulnerability may generate worse effects from flooding, with a focus on overall policy effectiveness in reducing both the risks and the social consequences of flooding.

There are interesting alternative approaches guiding national flood investment. In the Netherlands the state is setting a basic minimum safety level for all its citizens alongside a cost-benefit analysis in its national strategy. This puts a clear goal of social protection at the heart of national policy. While the context is different, with more extreme national implications from flooding in the Netherlands than in the UK, the overall principles are relevant. The UK has no
equivalent social protection goals for its flood investment policy. Given the expectation that we will face more extreme and frequent floods, it may be time to reconsider this.

Katharine Knox, policy and research programme manager, JRF




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