Enhancing UK Flood Resilience: Past Floods, Present Threats, Future Responses

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Historical Studies


Flooding represents the most serious environmental threat to the UK today. It is a problem predicted to increase over the next few decades. The urgency with which collective responses must be found to this, and other climate-related challenges, is reflected in the recent shift in vocabulary: we no longer talk of a crisis but an emergency. Positive responses to the flood threat will require a unity of action between central government and local authorities, environmental agencies, academics, and the public. Key to future flood control will be the fundamental decisions now being taken over how the UK landscape can be best managed. Within many quarters there is a dawning realisation that if the country is to become more flood resilient, landscape change may have to be radical in conception and bold in undertaking. To be both practicable and deliverable, it is essential that the positive benefits deriving from new configurations of the landscape are communicated effectively to communities affected by change if the transition is not to be resisted and delayed.

This Research Network, led by scholars from the Arts and Humanities, draws together those with interests in the historic and contemporary environment, with perspectives to offer on the past, present, and future shape of the British landscape and societal responses to flooding. This Network focuses, in the first instance, on those landscape decisions that are required to be taken to build greater flood resilience in England and Wales. Over time, the Network will look to broaden its remit to the whole of the UK and beyond. The Network aims to break down academic silos, and in particular collapse the Arts and Humanities-Science divide. Crucially, the Network will involve representatives from those agencies currently charged with building and delivering flood resilience across the country. It has the express ambition of contributing substantively to current discourse and debates surrounding the most appropriate and deliverable responses to the rising flood threat in the UK. In particular it looks to fully exploit the unique, and largely overlooked, contribution that Arts and Humanities readings of the long-term development of the British landscape and societal responses to flooding, might make in creating more flood resistant communities and landscapes into the future.

Three questions, which can only be fully addressed through interdisciplinary treatment, have led to the creation of this Research Network and guide its agenda. First, can we or should we continue to rely on on hard engineered defences as the principal method for mitigating floods or should we be moving towards softer natural flood management strategies? Second, what lessons can be drawn from the ways in which communities have responded to flooding in the past and the land management practices they adopted to mitigate against floods: might these provide templates for the future? Thirdly, in recognising that landscape change will impact people's existing relationship with, and appreciation of, familiar landscapes, how, where, and in what ways might this required transformation be best and most sensitively achieved?

The Network responds directly to those responsible for flood management and delivering these necessary landscape changes and what they desire from the academy in order to fill evidential gaps they have identified and which they want in order to enhance their current practice. It will establish a new research agenda in which Arts and Humanities research will play a central role in future proofing the UK landscape against the rising threat of flooding. Providing a research focus for the Network with the potential to deliver more immediate impact, the Network will work closely with the Environment Agency as they develop and deliver their plans for the future sustainable management of the low-lying, flood-protected landscape of Isle of Axholme in north Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

Planned Impact

The fundamental rationale for establishing this Research Network is to ensure that information and evidence, particularly but not exclusively that emerging from Arts and Humanities research, is shared more effectively between academics and non-academic stakeholders. Its proposed infrastructure, including the establishment of an outward-facing website, face-to-face meetings, fact-finding missions, and public event, have therefore been designed to deliver effective impact efficiently both within and beyond the academy.

The wider societal impact of this Network will be felt most fully by two groups:

1. Non-academic stakeholders
A wide variety of bodies are actively engaged in managing the landscape to build flood resilience. Stakeholders with remits for the direct management of water and flood control include the Environment Agency, regional river trusts, and local drainage boards. Organisations with wider landscape ownership/management remits include the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Forestry Commission, county wild life trusts, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and river catchment partnerships. The Network will impact on the working practices of these stakeholders by filling evidential gaps through targeted research which will guide the adoption and application of a range of flood defence measures.

2. The public
The issue of flooding has never been higher in the public consciousness. One in six households is considered to be at risk from flooding. Coordinating bodies such as the National Flood Forum provide advice on flood resilience for private home-owners and businesses; while local authorities are taking active steps to mitigate, alleviate, and defend against flooding to build flood-resilient communities. Direct public impact will be achieved through outreach and research concentration on the Isle of Axholme, with the Network impacting more widely through its programme of dissemination.

The Network will deliver impact for these groups over the short-, medium- and long-term in the following ways:

1. A landscape laboratory
Providing an immediate and articulating focus for the Network, which will lead to measurable impact in the short-term, the Network will work closely with the Environment Agency to develop and deliver their plans for the on-going and future management of the Isle of Axholme. The Network will provide the opportunity to concentrate academic resources drawn from across the country and from a number of disciplines including the Arts and Humanities on this real-time landscape, at a moment when difficult decisions are being taken about how this reclaimed landscape and its rivers will be managed into the future.

2. A new research agenda
This will refocus the academic study of flooding and flood-related land management towards delivering the kind of evidence identified as lacking or in need of enhancement by non-academic stakeholders themselves. It will emphasis and deliver evidence which they, not academics, judge vital or beneficial to the practical delivery of flood resilience on the ground. This agenda will be a collaboratively produced document, in which environmental managers and other non-academic stakeholders will contribute as equal partners in its formulation, ensuring that the impact potential of this Network is directly targeted on areas of immediate practical need.

3. A Digital hub
Communicating to both non-academic stakeholders and the public will principally be achieved through the Network's on-line presence, a public-facing website acting as a notice board highlighting current and future research; a platform offering access to digital records of the Network's formal activities; and a repository for the dissemination of the Network's working papers and formal outputs. This will be supplemented and reinforced by a public fact-sharing event to be held in an Axholme pumping station (Keadby or Owston Ferry), and public-facing publications.


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