Bristol City Council has declared a climate emergency and, since prevention is better than cure, it is not surprising that emphasis has been placed on the city’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
There has been less focus on the impact of changing weather patterns for the people of Bristol despite the threat of increased tidal, river and flash flooding.
The elected mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, has bold plans for growth in the city which include building on areas that are at risk of flooding.
In April 2019, the Environment Agency raised concerns with Colin Molton, Bristol’s interim director of growth and regeneration, about “a disconnect between the development of the flood risk strategy and your aspirations for growth and development”.
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Of particular concern are plans for large-scale developments at St Phillip’s Marsh (part of the Temple Quarter area) and Cumberland Basin (to be renamed Western Harbour).
The Environment Agency stated: “If these come forward in the absence of a strategy setting out how wider flood risk will be managed then we will, in accordance with national planning policy, be duty bound to object on flood risk grounds as development in these areas would make flood risk worse elsewhere. This is not where we want to be and really illustrates the difficulty in taking a piecemeal approach to development and regeneration.”
In a subsequent meeting with Bristol City Council officers, the Environment Agency asserted its ‘red lines’: significant development in areas of flood risk must not be supported in the absence of a strategy and nor can areas be protected in isolation as it will increase flood risk elsewhere.
In response, Molton said delivery of flood defences would be “development led” and it was agreed he would “consider inviting” a representative of the Environment Agency onto the project steering group for Temple Quarter. It is not clear from the notes of the meeting why this had not already been considered.
Meanwhile, plans for major developments continue.
As the Lead Local Flood Authority for Bristol, the city council does have a flood risk management strategy. It states that St Philips Marsh and Cumberland Basin are at risk of both river and tidal flooding, and the threat will increase significantly as sea levels rise.
Read more: Remembering Bristol’s Great Flood of 1968
When the strategy was examined by Bristol’s Growth & Regeneration Scrutiny Commission, the proposed large-scale developments at Cumberland Basin and St Philip’s Marsh gave councillors cause for concern.
Officers offered reassurance that “holistic solutions” would be built into schemes at every stage and these would be well thought out before any building could be considered.
Nevertheless, members of the Scrutiny Commission decided to keep the management of flood risk on the agenda for their work programme. This seems wise.
In a recent speech setting out his response to the climate emergency, the mayor stressed the importance of his One City Plan, which brings together different institutions, organisations and individuals to work towards the Bristol they want to see by 2050.
Unfortunately, the current version does not provide much reassurance that plans for growth are linked to flood risk management: progressing development at St Philip’s Marsh is listed for 2022-2023 and at Western Harbour in 2025-2026, but the ability to fully respond to rising water levels and flood risks is set to be achieved more than 20 years later in 2048-2049.
The One City Plan is a working document, and a new Environmental Sustainability Board has been established, so these targets may be more closely aligned in the future.
However, the recently appointed advisory group taking forward ideas for development at Western Harbour does not include a representative from the Environment Agency.
For the moment, there really does seem to be a disconnect between the development of a coherent flood risk management strategy and proposals for large-scale development on sites in Bristol with a known flood risk.
Dr Suzanne Audrey is a public health researcher with an interest in communities and the environment.