Managing flood risk

20 May 2016

Article by Elfyn Henderson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

This article is taken from ‘Key issues for the Fifth Assembly’, published on 12 May 2016.

Flooding is a constant threat for many communities across Wales. How will the new Welsh Government protect people and property from the damage caused by flooding and coastal erosion?

Managing flood and coastal erosion risk is an ongoing challenge. Climate change means that severe weather events are likely to become more frequent and less predictable, increasing the risk of flooding in many communities across Wales.

Policy approach

The Welsh Government is responsible for managing flood and coastal erosion risk and largely funds the flood and coastal activities carried out by risk management authorities. In Wales, these are primarily Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and local authorities.

The previous Welsh Government’s National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management has four overarching objectives:

Photograph of a flooded road
Image from Flickr by http://www.MorienJones.com. Licensed under the Creative Commons.
  • reducing the consequences for individuals, communities, businesses and the environment from flooding and coastal erosion;
  • raising awareness of, and engaging people on, flood and coastal erosion risk;
  • providing an effective and sustained response to flood and coastal erosion events; and
  • prioritising investment in the communities most at risk.

The strategy combines traditional approaches, such as drainage and defence, with a risk management approach.

A risk management approach means recognising that it is not possible to prevent all flooding and coastal erosion, but that a range of different approaches can be used to manage the impacts, often working with rather than against nature. For example, the strategy suggests making more use of areas such as wetlands or salt marshes and identifying areas suitable for inundation and water storage. It also suggests incorporating greater resilience into the design of building developments and greater use of sustainable drainage systems.

A risk management approach in coastal areas can also include policies of no active intervention or ‘managed realignment’ of the shoreline. Managed realignment means allowing the shoreline to move backwards or forwards naturally, but also managing the process to direct it in certain areas. Such policies can clearly be difficult for the communities and individuals affected. In October 2015, the then Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant, told the Fourth Assembly that:

Climate change will mean that some of our coastal communities … will need our long term support in facing significant adaptation as the sea level rises and the associated risks to life and property become untenable.

The strategic approach to managing the Welsh shoreline is set out in the four Shoreline Management Plans, each covering a different part of Wales.

Coastal flooding review 2014

The storms of December 2013 and January 2014 ravaged many parts of the Welsh coast and will live long in the memories of people living in the hardest hit communities. Over 300 homes were flooded and an estimated £8.1 million worth of damage was done to flood and coastal defences.

However NRW estimated that around 74,000 properties that had the potential to flood did not, meaning that less than 1% of the properties potentially at risk actually experienced flooding. NRW said this was due to the many years of previous investment in, and maintenance of, the coastal defences.

NRW carried out a major review of coastal defences following the storms. The review consisted of two phases – the first assessed the impact of the flooding, and the second made 47 recommendations aimed at improving Wales’s resilience to coastal flooding in six areas:

  • sustained investment in coastal risk management;
  • improving information about coastal flood defence systems;
  • greater clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of agencies and authorities;
  • assessing skills and capacity;
  • more support to help communities become more resilient; and
  • delivering locally-developed plans for coastal communities.

The then Minister stated that 42 of the 47 recommendations would be completed by the end of the financial year 2015-16 (the remaining five recommendations are ongoing activities without a specific deadline).

We will not know for sure how effective these changes have been until the next time a major weather event hits coastal defences around Wales.


During the Fourth Assembly, the previous Welsh Government invested some £245 million in managing flood and coastal erosion risk. However, flood risk management funding and NRW’s operating budget have both been cut in recent years.

When questioned by the Fourth Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee in January 2016, the then Minister acknowledged that the cuts would put NRW under pressure and ‘increase risk for communities on the basis that there’s less money to go into the system’. He also suggested further budget cuts could bring NRW to the point where it would have to stop delivering certain functions. He said:

I think there will come a time when NRW are pressured and they are unable to continue with some of the duties that they currently do. I don’t believe it’s now.

NRW Chief Executive, Emyr Roberts, later wrote to the Committee confirming that flood and coastal risk management was an area where NRW has had to ‘deliver efficiencies and make changes to ways of working’.

Coastal Risk Management Programme

In 2014 the Welsh Government announced a new £150 million Coastal Risk Management Programme, due to start in 2018. The programme will be delivered in partnership with local authorities and £3 million has already been allocated for preparatory work. In March 2016 the Welsh Government indicated that the European Investment Bank could be a potential source of funding for the programme.

The then Minister said that while reducing risk to homes and businesses is the focus, the programme also ‘seeks out additional economic, environmental and wellbeing benefits’.

Little more is known about the detail of the programme at this stage, including confirmation of how it will be funded and the kind of projects it will support.

Key sources

Promoted by the National Assembly for Wales Commission, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, CF99 1NA

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