'Slowing the Flow' partner representatives at the launch event

This is a guest blog contribution from Professor Peter Head. Peter is the founder of the Ecological Sequestration Trust, visiting Professor in Sustainable Systems Engineering at Bristol University, visiting Professor in eco-cities at Westminster University and former head of Arup’s planning and integrated urbanisation team. Peter is a civil and structural engineer who has become a recognised world leader in major bridges, advanced composite technology and sustainable development in cities and regions.

Peter will be bringing his extensive experience and expertise to the Royal Society’s policy project on human resilience to climate change and disasters as a member of the working group. As part of the project Peter recently travelled to Yorkshire to learn about some of the projects being put in place to protect communities from flooding. Below he gives us some reflections.

Earlier this month I travelled to Pickering in North Yorkshire to learn about their ‘Slowing the Flow’ partnership. Pickering has a long history of flooding, with several significant floods in the past decade. The partnership aims to work with nature to store more water in the landscape and slow the flow of water downstream, reducing the risk of flooding in the town of Pickering. The project has had a fair amount of media lime-light in the past week or so.

The partnership turned out to be a fascinating example of collaborative working in which an affordable solution was evolved. The partnership brings together multiple partners. The involvement of a large range of different actors, from local businesses to the Forestry Commission, means that when an affordable solution is arrived at, it’s arrived at by the group and there is support at all levels. This is not always easy, and in Pickering itself has not been a smooth process. However, the positive solutions-focus approach taken by those involved in the project meant that when problems arose those involved worked proactively to work around them.

One of the unique things about this project is the community ownership. Members of the Pickering community have been key proponents of the project and flooding solutions. The approaches being used in Pickering today were not the first solutions to be suggested; the process of coming to a solution has taken many years. What is now being implemented initially came out of a research project on ‘Understanding Knowledge Environmental Controversies’ focused on flood research and which involved academics at Oxford, Durham and Newcastle University as well as eight people from the Pickering community. This combination of local and expert knowledge allowed them to identify feasible flood risk reduction options, which do not protect everybody but are acceptable to the community as a whole. The local ownership of these solutions was also vital to their eventual implementation.

Partnerships and collaborative working, underpinned by science, are essential in ensuring the sustainability of such projects, as well as in wider planning processes. When a full range of interests and viewpoints are consulted and engaged the chance of maladaptation is greatly reduced. It is less likely that implementing a project that will have negative impacts on other parts of the system.

Unfortunately, this joined up thinking does not always happen, which, without a doubt, creates and exacerbates many of the challenges that we face today. Surat, in India, has been flooded by the monsoon water, released from reservoirs upstream, arriving in the city at high tide. A social enterprise in Surat now monitors water systems and brings parties together to try to avoid this. One of the challenges is that institutions tend to silo different sectors or subjects. One key example being the separate frameworks for climate change, disaster risk reduction, adaptation and mitigation – four things that on the ground are inseparable.

It is pleasing to see that research is ongoing so that lessons from Pickering can be used not only in other flood affected areas of the UK, but globally.