With climate change likely to increase the likelihood of flooding, Adrian Crompton – Auditor General for Wales explains the key issues facing the sector in Wales.
Like many parts of the UK, Wales has suffered the devastating impacts of flooding. Over 3,000 properties in Wales were known to be flooded in the winter storms of February 2020, causing an estimated £81 million in damage. Such events are a stark reminder that severe storms could become increasingly common due to climate change.
The response to the climate and nature emergency is one of the key themes that will shape my work programme as Auditor General over the next few years. In December 2022, I published a report explaining how flood risk management works in Wales and setting out key challenges. It is one of a number other reviews relevant to the topic, including by the Wales Flood and Coastal Erosion Committee (looking at resources, and at legislation and associated policy).
So, what are the big issues for the flooding sector in Wales? My report highlighted five areas.
Workforce capacity: The most immediate priority, and the starting point for tackling other challenges. We found a workforce under considerable pressure, in desperate need of increased capacity, and requiring broad skills which are hard to find. The sector is also suffering from a lack of succession planning to ensure a suitable pipeline of future staff.
Long-term investment: The increasing risks associated with climate change are likely to require significant long term public investment, but there may also be parts of Wales where the costs of maintaining flood defences outweigh the benefits.
Natural Resources Wales have been modelling potential requirements for maintaining existing flood assets over the next 100 years. We are expecting that this assessment will point to the need for a significant increase in spending. Meanwhile, opportunities to secure funding from other sources, including developers and the beneficiaries of flood risk management schemes, are being missed.
Policy integration and collective leadership: We heard from key stakeholders that flood risk management is too often seen as an issue for flooding departments to manage alone, and the Flood and Coastal Erosion Committee has described collaborative working as ad hoc. More needs to be done to join up with other policy areas to achieve wider benefits such as economic development, recreation, and improved biodiversity. My report also highlighted that there is no Wales-wide forum for senior leaders to discuss and elevate the profile of flood risk management across public services, something I see as a gap.
Measuring performance and delivery: There are gaps in flood risk data and the risks themselves keep changing with climate change. The overall picture of the condition of flood defences is not clear, although the Welsh Government’s 2020 National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management commits to improvement. Natural Resources Wales are taking forward action in this area. Meanwhile, measuring impact by monitoring changes in risk does not necessarily indicate how well those risks are being managed. Building developments or new flood defences can also move flood risk from one place to another.
Building development: My report flagged concerns that building development in high-risk flood areas is exposing properties to avoidable flood risk. National data on planning consents shows significantly higher levels of development in high flood risk areas in 2016-17 to 2018-19 compared to 2015-16. However, beyond 2018-19 there is no national data to judge new risks resulting from development.
While there have been some positive developments, my report raises serious questions about whether public services can keep pace with the increasing risks and challenges associated with flooding. The Welsh Government has shared a response to my report with the Welsh Parliament’s Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee and I will consider further audit work in the next few years looking at progress. The messages from my work appear to have been well received, but concerted action is now needed to deliver a sustainable future for flood risk management in Wales.