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North Yorkshire residents and Oxford University researchers work together, challenging flood management assumptions and paving the way for new ideas.

Flooding is a major issue for the UK, with substantial impacts and costs incurred for communities. 2014 figures suggest that over five million properties are at risk of flooding in England, and annual flood damage costs are in the region of £1.1 billion, with costs rising to as much as £27bn by 2080. The negative impact on people’s lives is also important.  At the School of Geography and the Environment a new way of working with communities affected by flooding has challenged the standard expert models of flood defence by pooling local knowledge and academic expertise. 

Professor Sarah Whatmore and her team of natural and social scientists from Oxford, Durham and Newcastle Universities arrived in Pickering, North Yorkshire, just weeks after the unseasonal summer flooding of 2007 that damaged scores of homes and business premises. The consultants employed by the regional Environment Agency had proposed building a flood wall in the centre of this historic market town. This proposal had failed the government’s cost-benefit tests guiding the investment of scare flood defence resources so the town continued to be left without flood defences. When Professor Whatmore’s team began its work in the locality, the townspeople were split over the desirability of the flood wall, and relations with the flood management authorities had broken down. 

The people who live with flooding know as much, if not more, as scientists like me
- University member of the Rydedale Flood Research Group

The team recruited volunteer residents from the town and surrounding villages with experience of flooding to work with them in a research collaboration over a twelve month period to test an experimental methodology - the Environmental Competency Group. This experimental ethos embraced the idea that, as one of the university members put it, ‘the people who live with flooding know as much, if not more, as scientists like me’. The ECG methodology is designed to combine scientific and local expertise in the detailed simulation of the causes of flooding in the locality and the potential effects of different flood management interventions in order to identify the most effective and affordable flood defence option for the town. The Ryedale Flood Research Group, as the group became known, was made up of community members, flood modellers and social scientists and started by questioning the expert modelling that informed the flood wall proposal. The first-hand knowledge of the local members of the RFRG provided important inputs to the production of a more bespoke flood model for the town and, as a result, a more viable flood management proposition . 

The group worked to ‘slow down’ and interrogate the expert reasoning process by which the town of Pickering had found its flood defence needs bound to the proposition of a flood wall that would never secure the public funds necessary to build it. The RFRG’s collaborative modelling work brought a new flood defence idea to the fore in the proposition of upland storage by means of a series of bunds or small dams in the landscape above the town made out of vernacular materials like wood, stones and earth to hold back water in times of intense rainfall sufficiently to reduce the concentration of floodwaters in the town centre. The RFRG publicised this proposition in the wider community by designing a hands-on exhibition to explain the bund model, and talk visitors through the collaborative research process that had given rise to it. The upland storage idea gained momentum, becoming part of a successful bid for government funding and part of a ‘demonstration project’ that has subjected the RFRG’s proposition to further rigorous modelling and engineering trials.

Work started above the town in early summer 2012 and the woody debris dams in the uplands above the towns are now in situ, with the earth bund under construction immediately to the north of Pickering. Although these flood management interventions have not yet been tested by a flood event of the magnitude of that in the summer of 2007, the new Pickering flood defences have become a national exemplar both of how to involve flood affected communities in the design of flood management measures appropriate to their locality and of the efficacy and affordability of so-called ‘natural flood management’ measures in smaller settlements and rural areas in which heavy engineering solutions are unlikely to be a cost-effective investment of constrained public monies available for flood defence.

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School of Geography and the Environment

Prof Sarah Whatmore