Flood Action Groups: On the rise in the UK but nowhere to be seen in the Netherlands

Catherine Morgan
Tuesday, 24th March 2015

Flood action groups set up by members of the public are becoming increasingly common across the UK. They can allow members of the public to influence local flood risk management and have a role in local decision-making on flood issues. This is in sharp contrast to the Netherlands where historic forms of community driven water management used to be present, but no longer appear to exist in a form driven by members of the public.

Both the UK and the Netherlands have had flood action groups set up by members of the public to discuss and act on local flood issues. However, they can be seen to differ in terms of the paths that they have chosen.

Flood action groups organized by members of the public exist across the UK and are involved in flood risk communication, promoting flood resilience, building community self-reliance and campaigning for flood defences, amongst other activities. These flood action groups vary in terms of their aims and objectives, but are a means to allow members of the public to contribute and put forward their thoughts on local flood risk management. Flood action groups can allow change to happen at a local scale and allow local perceptions of flood issues to be taken into account when designing local flood risk management strategies. They are becoming more prominent in the UK with members of the public joining together to take a more active role in local flood risk management. These groups are also becoming more visible in the media and in the minds of the general public.

In contrast, there appears to be a complete lack of flood action groups, organised and led by members of the public, in the Netherlands. Many of my Dutch colleagues are puzzled at the concept of a flood action group and the need for members of the public to do something that is perceived to be the responsibility of the Dutch Government (an agency called Rijkswaterstaat is responsible for water management and flood defence issues at a national level, whilst water boards are responsible for this at a regional level).

The Dutch regional water boards (waterschappen)  began around the 13th Century as informal water management groups set up by local monks and farmers – a form of flood action group. Over time these groups have been institutionalised and are no longer driven by members of the public but by regional governments. They have become more technocratic and are led by publicly elected officials (citizens paying taxes in the water board area are eligible to stand for election) with limited powers to initiate changes. They can levy taxes, but have a limited mandate as decisions on urban planning are made elsewhere. There is currently low public interest, albeit high public trust, in these elected positions and a low level of flood risk awareness across the Netherlands – a recent Dutch Red Cross survey found that over 80% of Dutch people were not worried about a possible flood.

Why are there flood action groups in the UK, but not the Netherlands? It could be related to differences in the levels of flood awareness and public interest in flooding. Media attention and the impact of previous flood experiences could be important with the UK recently suffering from multiple severe flood events (Boscastle in 2004, Hull in 2007, the winter floods in 2013/14), whilst the Netherlands have not recently had any comparable flooding.

It could also be attributed to the role of government – in the UK the Government has a permissive duty to alleviate flooding, whilst in the Netherlands the constitution places a responsibility on the Government to ‘keep its citizens’ feet dry’. These roles have meant that flood risk management is a higher priority in the Netherlands and receives greater funding.

A more cynical view may be that cuts in UK Government funding for flood risk management are necessitating the need to look to members of the public for greater support in reducing local flood risk – an idea that could be framed within the concept of ‘Big Society’.

A better question might be whether it matters if flood action groups exist in the UK and are absent from the Netherlands. In the UK, flood action groups appear to exist as a means of allowing public input into the decision-making process, to raise local flood risk awareness, to increase local resilience to floods, to enable quicker recoveries from flood events and to become better prepared for the ‘next’ flood. These reasons assume that flooding has happened or will happen in the local area and that there are people who care enough to form a group and organise themselves. In the Netherlands, flood defences are strong, public spending on flood protection is high and the risk of flooding is much lower: there is a relatively low proportion of the Dutch public worried about a possible flood (as suggested by the Dutch Red Cross survey).

Despite this perceived safety, it appears that there is a lack of local public involvement and participation in local flood risk management and decision-making in the Netherlands. Does this matter now? Perhaps not, but predicted increases in coastal and surface water flooding as a result of climate change may mean that flooding is even more likely in the future. It is then that an inability for members of the public to be involved in decisions relating to local flood risk, and also local urban planning, may become a more important issue.

Disclaimer: This short article is meant to highlight differences between the UK and the Netherlands and is not a comprehensive analysis of the current situation – more to follow in the future.

Steven Forrest recently started his PhD research at the University of Groningen and is focusing on flood resilience at a community level in the UK and the Netherlands.  He hopes that his research will result in recommendations to improve flood resilience in both the UK and the Netherlands. If you would like to know more about his research or to discuss any aspect of this article then please contact him for further information: s.a.forrest@rug.nl