Home Society The next great flood is coming. Britain isn’t ready.
The next great flood is coming. Britain isn’t ready.

The next great flood is coming. Britain isn’t ready.

by host
The next great flood is coming. Britain isn’t ready.

SNETTISHAM, England — When David Bocking, an 89-year-old parish councilor from the village of Snettisham in Norfolk, drives the short distance down to the sea, memories of the great flood go with him.

Those memories spring up like signposts along the route. The spot where, in the dead of night with the wind howling, he and his father were engulfed by seawater, more than a mile from where the sea should be. The shady lane where five drowned, including a woman whose body was carried by flood waters into the branches of a bare winter tree.

Bocking was 18 years old on January 31 1953, the night of one of Britain’s worst natural disasters. Few today have heard of the event, let alone remember it. 

A severe storm, combined with a spring tide, caused the North Sea to surge inland across the east coast of Britain and north-west Europe. Twenty-five were drowned at Snettisham alone, their bodies laid out in the church hall. The names of the dead are now set in stone on a village memorial.

Across Britain’s east coast, 326 died. Europe-wide, the death toll was more than 2,500. 

“It was an horrendous night,” Bocking says slowly. “We went down to the fields to help and we knew people were drowning. But you couldn’t do nothing.”

Even on a sunny May morning, 71 years later, the threat feels ever-present, he warns.

“I wish there were some people that would wake up to the fact that it’s going to happen again,” Bocking said later, sitting in a wicker armchair in his conservatory, remembering 1953. “The Arctic is thawing, making the sea rise … If we get a north-westerly wind behind a spring tide, that’ll do it.”

Unprepared

Interviews with more than a dozen scientists, engineers and politicians at the frontline of the country’s flood preparations reveal an uncomfortable truth. Climate change means that, perhaps more than at any other time since 1953, the U.K. faces precisely this kind of catastrophic flood risk — and whole new threats as well. 

The U.K.’s relative wealth and extensive flood defenses do not make it immune to climate risk. Rising sea levels, increased winter precipitation, and more regular, more intense rainstorms are all now priced into the country’s future. And Whitehall isn’t prepared — at least not yet.

“If a 1953 flood — which was ‘once in a century’ — becomes annual, what on Earth does a ‘once in a century’ storm look like?” said John Curtin, a former Environment Agency interim chief executive with more than 30 years experience in flood management, citing a “frightening” U.N. report which warned that “extreme sea level events that are historically rare” could be annual events by 2050.

An incoming government will need to step up to the challenge after the election, he said, or face their share of the blame if things go badly wrong.

The U.K.’s relative wealth and extensive flood defenses do not make it immune to climate risk. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“What worries me,” Curtin went on, “is that [meeting that challenge] happens in one of two ways. There are visionary leaders that understand and want to make a difference over a few generations. Or it happens because there is a massive catastrophe, hundreds of lives lost — and there is a major inquiry that says this needs to happen.”

The growing risk

Deep into the general election campaign, and with Labour holding onto its commanding poll lead, some MPs think a new government could start to grip the problem without having to find new cash. 

“There is money,” said Shadow Flooding Minister Emma Hardy, referring to existing Whitehall capital spending allocations of £5.6 billion for flood defenses, which go up to 2027. “The question is why it hasn’t been spent, why are projects so far behind?” 

Last year, the National Audit Office, the spending watchdog, warned that — amid supply chain pressures and a skills shortage — flood defense money has been “underspent” to the tune of £310 million. MPs said in January that 203,000 properties had been exposed to risk because flood defenses are “below their required condition.”

Flood defenses have hugely improved since 1953. So have forecasting and warning systems. But the danger remains. 

The government’s most recent national risk register, published last year, lists coastal flooding as a significant danger, made worse by rising sea levels. A “reasonable worst-case scenario” involves flooding “across the east coast of England, impacting a very large number of residential properties.” 

“A large number of people would require evacuation and shelter,” the paper said, warning there would likely be fatalities. For the first time, the register also said that “surface water flooding” from sustained rainfall could force people from their homes. 

For Curtin, a coastal surge remains the “biggest, scariest” scenario. A study last year, conducted by the Gallagher Research Centre and scientists at HR Wallingford, said that Hull in east Yorkshire, Skegness in Lincolnshire, Kings Lynn in Norfolk (just up the coast from Snettisham), Southend in Essex, and Sandwich in Kent could all be in the path of a future coastal flooding surge. Around 60,000 households would be at risk.

Curtin worries about what he calls “the myth of protection” — would people familiar with U.K. flood defenses see the danger they face?

“On the east coast in Lincolnshire, there are a lot of road signs with an arrow and the letters ‘ER’ on them in red,” he said. It stands for ‘evacuation route,’ to guide people safely away from a potential coastal surge. But how many people in Lincolnshire know that?”

When Curtin approached the local authorities to discuss this question, he was told they didn’t want to scare people. “If you go to Japan, they have signs with a big picture of a wave and people running away. There’s no point pussyfooting around this message.”

The coming flood

The coastal surge witnessed by David Bocking seven decades ago shocked the country into radically changing how it protects itself. 

Tidal barriers, sea walls, sand banks and levees were built all over the country to protect the growing population from the rivers and the seas. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Over the following decades, tidal barriers, sea walls, sand banks and levees were built all over the country to protect the growing population from the rivers and the seas. There are now around 7,500 kilometers of raised flood defenses in England alone. The U.K. has become one of the most flood-protected places in the world. 

But recent climate data has alarmed scientists. The U.K. has just seen its wettest 18 months on record and an unusually severe winter storm season. Flood alerts were issued in record-breaking numbers. In May, leading scientists said climate change had increased both total winter rainfall and the intensity of rainstorms. 

“We weren’t really prepared for the level of acceleration in climate change that we would see last year,” said Ivan Haigh, professor of ocean and earth science at Southampton University. “Coastal flooding, river flooding, surface flooding — all of those are going to increase in frequency … and there’s more property, more infrastructure in the flood plain than ever before.” 

“I think it is going to be a massive issue that is going to be felt this decade.”

For some, it is already being felt. National Farmers Union President Tom Bradshaw told POLITICO that the impact of the extremely wet winter on yields for British farmers would be “huge,” predicting a difficult harvest and potential price spikes. The government must make managing flood risk a greater “strategic priority … if they’re serious about food security being national security,” he said 

Philip Dunne, a Tory MP who served as chair of the influential Environmental Audit Committee and is a farmer, has seen the impact first-hand. “We will have some acreage that we won’t be able to plant. I think we’re going to see the area of planted crops [across the country] materially down this year compared to a normal year, which will have an impact on food prices and food availability,” he told POLITICO.

Meanwhile, mortgage lenders and insurers are already factoring in a significant increase in the number of properties considered at flooding risk.

Later this year, the Environment Agency will publish a major new flood risk assessment, building in future climate dangers. Julie Foley, the agency’s director of flood risk strategy, said it is “likely” the number of homes and businesses classified as having a flood risk — currently estimated at 5.5 million in England covering one in six people — would increase.

Foley would not be drawn on how many more properties may be classified “at risk.” But Aaron Jones, flood risk director at Ashfield Solutions, said that, based on private sector data already used by insurers and mortgage lenders, he expected the number to rise to 7.5 million, “maybe more.”

“The most fundamental underlying policy question is whether some communities, where they are, are sustainable in the future,” Curtin says. “I get how difficult that is for politicians. Who wins votes telling a community they’re going to have to move because of climate change?”

But those conversations will have to happen, along with a shift away from assuming that a rich country like the U.K. can simply prevent all floods by constructing ever higher walls.

“We will need to build resilience into communities, so they know what to do and how to respond when flood warnings come,” said Hayley Fowler, professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University. “In Bangladesh, for example, people are just used to floods happening every year. They know when the floods are coming, they know how to behave, they know where to go. To a certain extent, we’re going to have to learn how to do that as a nation.”

“We will need to build resilience into communities, so they know what to do and how to respond when flood warnings come.” | Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images

Philip Dunne calls it “a new era” of flood risk in the U.K.

‘It’s changing the country we live in’

One looming threat is flooding caused by sudden, extreme downpours. The danger of “very intense rain cells,” Environment Agency boss Philip Duffy told MPs in November, “genuinely keeps me awake at night.” 

Extremely heavy rainfall led to river flooding that killed 239 people in Germany and Belgium in 2021. It is considered a major risk for cities where hard surfaces and insufficient drainage can lead to flash flooding. The issue has become “absolutely critical to us, given the climate change that we are facing,” Duffy said.

Julia King, a crossbench peer who leads on adaptation for the Climate Change Committee, which advises government, agrees. She wants Whitehall to do more on mitigating those risks and alerting people to the threat — especially in cities.

“Last winter we saw terrible flooding in New York going into the underground system, and indeed some people died in flooded basements. We’ve seen problems with basement flooding and underground flooding in London in recent winters,” she explains. “That is something we are going to see a lot more of. But we aren’t putting in targets for urban green space [to hold water]. We aren’t making sure that we’re implementing sustainable urban drainage systems.” 

When people buy or rent a basement apartment in a flood risk area of a city, she said, they should be warned.

“This is not just happening in other places,” King added. “It’s changing the country we live in. We have got to understand that and take it seriously. There really isn’t enough public awareness, and there still is that feeling that these things happen to somebody else.”

Close to home

For some MPs, the issue is personal — and the growing dangers are abundantly clear. 

Labour’s Emma Hardy — who in five weeks’ time could be leading U.K. government flood policy — was working as a primary school teacher in Hull in June 2007 when a severe flood hit the city.

“I remember being in class and one of the children saying: ‘Mrs. Hardy, Mrs. Hardy, there’s water in the classroom!’”

“We had to move the children from classroom to classroom up the corridor as the water was coming into the school,” Hardy says. She abandoned her car on the way home to escape the flood.

The press come in for a few days, Hardy said, “and then they’re gone. What they didn’t see … was all the children living in caravans till Christmas, mums doing Christmas dinner on the driveway because the house is still flooded. For a while afterward some of the kids would cry when it rained.”

Repeated storms mean coastal erosion “that you might have expected over 10 years has probably taken place in three or four months.”  | Carl Court/Getty Images

If Labour wins power, Hardy has pledged to set up a “COBRA-style” flood resilience taskforce, bringing together key agencies. “There hasn’t been that really targeted focus on this as an issue — but more and more people are facing it,” she said. 

Meanwhile Peter Aldous, Conservative MP for the east coast constituency of Waveney in Suffolk, still remembers his mother telling him about the floods of 1953, when she was living on the Norfolk coast. “They went to bed, then woke up in the morning and there was water everywhere. There was no warning.”

“Quite a lot of the defenses installed after 1953 are now getting toward the end of their natural lives,” Aldous said. 

“There is an issue of repair and maintenance — notwithstanding the fact that the impact of climate change means the problem is exacerbated and greater than it was.”

Repeated storms mean coastal erosion “that you might have expected over 10 years has probably taken place in three or four months,” Aldous added. 

He wants to see more public money dedicated to defenses. The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) points to the existing £5.6 billion allocated to flood defenses. But Aldous believes events are overtaking budgets.

Those capital funding decisions, made in 2021, were “realistic at that time,” he says. “With subsequent events and what is happening, it is inadequate.”

No retreat

A spokesperson for DEFRA said the government recognized “the threat from climate change and rising sea levels,” and had “set out a clear five-year adaptation plan to increase the country’s resilience to the effects of climate change and protect people, homes and businesses against climate change risks such as flooding, drought and heatwaves.”

Foley from the Environment Agency said there had been “continued investment from government” including an additional £220 million this year toward maintaining flood defenses. The agency is piloting a new warning system giving emergency services more notice of sudden, difficult-to-forecast torrential downpours leading to flash floods, she added.

There are other ways that the government could spend cash, said Emma Hardy, including solutions tested on the flood frontline in Hull: drainage schemes, use of green space to absorb water, and permeable road surfaces.

“That’s saying: ‘Climate change is real, flooding is inevitable, so let’s change our mindset to think about what we are doing to live with more water,’” she said. 

On the most existential risks to cities, though, Hardy would not countenance the idea of retreat. 

“I will never accept losing Hull,” she said. “For urban communities there are lots of things we can do — but we’ve got to accept there is going to be more water, and think about it differently.”

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