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The management of flood incidents in England and Wales; from legislation to the role of volunteers

Phil Emonson, Chartered member of CIWEM, member of the Emergency Planning Society and Chair of the Flood Resilience Professional Working Group, discusses the emergency response to flooding in both England and Wales.

How do we respond to and manage flood incidents?

To understand the emergency response to flooding, it’s important we understand the legal framework in place. Flooding can be complex, with sources including from rivers, the sea, groundwater, reservoirs, surface water, canals and sewers. Whilst the public don’t really care ‘whose water it is’, the Flood and Water Management Act (2010) places a statutory duty on Risk Management Authorities in England and Wales to manage these risk sources, and encourages a holistic approach with partnership working. It defines the Environment Agency as having the strategic overview role in England for all types of flooding and being responsible for management of flood risks from the rivers and sea, with Natural Resources Wales having the oversight role in Wales. Lead Local Flood Authorities (which include County Councils, Metropolitan and Unitary Councils), have responsibility for the management of local flood risk, which includes surface runoff, groundwater and flooding from ordinary watercourses (smaller rivers and streams). To discharge these responsibilities, they work with District Councils in their area and other important partners. Water companies have responsibility for management of flood risks from sewer networks.

There are two other pieces of important legislation with respect to flood risk and incident management. Firstly, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 provides a framework for civil protection and divides local responders into two categories, imposing a different set of duties on each. Category 1 responders are those organisations at the core of the response to most emergencies, and includes the emergency services, local authorities and the Environment Agency. Category 2 responders are those organisations who are less likely to be involved in the core of the response to the incident, but whose operations could be impacts (these include Network Rail, and other transport and utility providers). Category 1 and 2 organisations come together to form Local Resilience Forums which help co-ordination and co-operation between responders at the local level.

Secondly, the Reservoirs Act (1975) enforces reservoir safety with the key requirement to designate reservoirs as ‘high-risk’ if human life is endangered in the event of failure, with associated flood plans in place.

In the summer of 2007, England Wales saw extensive flooding, with tens of thousands of homes and businesses flooded. This widespread flooding acted as a national wake-up call, with Sir Michael Pitt leading an independent review. This resulted in 92 recommendations covering prediction and warning of flooding, prevention, emergency management, resilience and recovery, which have bought about considerable changes in flood risk management in England.

Image: Environment Agency - picture from Hereford area by Dave Throup

The Flood Forecasting Centre, a direct outcome from the Pitt Review recommendations, provides a world-leading service bringing together forecasters and hydrologists from the Met Office and the Environment Agency aimed at providing improved flood risk guidance for England and Wales. The service issues Flood Guidance Statement which summarise 5-days risk levels. This vital tool enables Category 1 and 2 responders to plan resources and response ahead of possible flooding.

For example, this response can include the deployment of temporary flood barriers which are used in place of permanent flood defences, such as in communities like Ironbridge and Worcester on the River Severn. Frequent planning, training and exercising with Environment Agency and local authority partners allows transport and deployment logistics to be rehearsed and understood. The armed forces are also involved in deployment exercises, for example testing and improving temporary defence deployment plans such as with Exercise Touchpaper in Salisbury in 2019.

Flood warnings also provide a vital tool for supporting emergency planning activities, not just from our responding agencies but also for home and business owners, and local flood groups, in enacting their personal and community emergency flood plans. Currently 1.4million people in England are signed up to receive the free alerts from the Environment Agency (if you don’t know how to do this, see here –, and since 2019 flood warnings now appear on Google Search and through Google Maps with live alerts. Flood warnings provide information people need to ‘Prepare, Act and Survive’.

And so we must acknowledge the great work of everyone involved in the response to floods and weather events such during Storms Ciara and Dennis in the Winter of 2020, and Storm Christoph in early 2021. Teams from the Met Office, Flood Forecasting Centre, Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, the emergency services and local authorities work collaboratively, in some instances with support from local volunteer community groups, to respond to some incredibly challenging and complex situations. Most recently this has also included challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. setting up COVID-safe rest centres).

A National Flood Emergency Framework was published in 2014, again as a direct outcome from the Pitt Review. Although a few years old now it still provides a comprehensive summary enabling Risk Management Authorities in England to understand their respective roles and responsibilities, bringing flood emergency information into a single planning document and provides a basis for improving national resilience to flooding. It’s a must-read for anyone involved in planning for and responding to flooding, and can be found here:

In the last year there has been some great progress made how we plan for and respond to flooding. In July 2020 the Environment Agency’s National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) Strategy for England was released, setting out three core ambitions to create climate resilient places and infrastructure for today and tomorrow’s climate. It works to the vision of “A nation ready for, and resilient to, flooding and coastal change – today, tomorrow and to the year 2100.”

Our climate is changing, and we simply can’t eliminate all flooding. But, the arrangements we have in place allow plans to be enacted and responding organisations to work together based on early and accurate forecasts. But we mustn’t just rely on organisational response; there are some fantastic volunteer emergency flood action groups in existence. These comprise local people who give their time and act as a voice for the wider community. They meet regularly and work to help reduce the impact of future flooding. They use best local information to identify key issues and develop a community flood plan, allowing collaboration with other responding agencies, setting local roles and responsibilities, and monitoring local conditions. Local flood wardens have a vital role to play, checking their patch and making sure drains and culverts aren’t blocked, making sure everyone has received the flood warnings, looking out for vulnerable members of the community, and assisting with the deployment of any Property Flood Resilience measures where needed. During an incident the group can also provide information from the ground, so that local responding agencies have the best and latest information available.

The role of the volunteer emergency flood group can go further though, to include influencing local decision makers and the management of local flood risk. The National Flood Forum has many affiliated flood groups and whilst groups are very much led and governed themselves, the NFF supports their work with training and advice. If you’re thinking of setting up a local emergency flood action group the NFF website is a great place to start, with a simple step by step guide available to download -

As I said at the start, flooding can be complex. The same can be said for flood incident management, with many different authorities responsible for different sources of flooding and governed by different parts of legislation. But it works, and it works well. This is in no small part thanks to the dedication, commitment and enormous ability of all those involved; from scientists making the early forecasts, to operational responders testing, checking and deploying equipment, to Local Resilience Forums whose planning and preparation, as well as response work, helps keep our homes and businesses safe.