Environment chief warns communities may have to move over climate change floods

It may be better for communities at risk of flooding to move as climate change causes more extreme weather and sea levels rise, the head of the Environment Agency has warned.

Sir James Bevan said the "hard truth" is that it would be better for some communities, including those at risk from rivers flooding and coastal erosion, to "relocate out of harm's way"

Asked if some people might have to move out of towns and villages built on flood plains, Sir James told the BBC: "Whilst almost all of the communities around the country I think with the right measures can be effectively protected, can stay where they are and can be made better places, we do know that climate change is bringing much higher sea levels.

"And we do know that some coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to higher sea levels.

"I think there has to be a question about how sustainable some of those communities are.

"And we do know that the climate emergency is bringing more violent weather, greater rainfall, and there are some communities that are based in narrow river valleys that flood very quickly."

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He added: "Now, no-one is saying those communities should be forced out from where they live. We all care about where we live and we want to do the best we can.

"What I am saying is we need to begin a conversation about how we can best look after those communities over the long term, with the people who live in those places and devise the best way forward for all of them."

Mr Bevan will warn in a speech today that development on flood plains should happen only if "there is no real alternative".

The agency's chief executive says it would be unrealistic to ban all development on the flood plain, but if there is no alternative any building that goes ahead should not increase the risk of flooding for other people.

And homes built on the flood plain should be resilient to flooding, for example with garages on the ground floor and people living higher up.

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He'll tell the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit: "Greater resilience also means designing new places, buildings and infrastructure so that they are built to cope with flooding.

"It means building back better after a flood, not simply replacing what we had before, so that homes, businesses and infrastructure are more resilient to future events.

"And it means accepting the hard truth that in a few places, the scale of coastal erosion and the risk of flooding from rivers or the sea will become so big that it may be better for communities to choose to relocate out of harm's way.

"So not only do we need to build back better. Sometimes we will need to build back in better places," he will say.

The Environment Agency says it is spending £2.6 billion on new flood defences that will better protect 300,000 properties by 2021 and more than £1 billion on maintaining existing defences in England.

John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary, said: “In the absence of any leadership from the Prime Minister, the Environment Agency is right to speak out about the risks of housebuilding on flood plains.

“Inappropriate building on flood plains must stop and the Government should act now to give councils and the Environment Agency the funding and powers to stop unsuitable development and to insist on flood resistant design in all areas at risk of flooding.”

The speech comes as communities in parts of the UK face ongoing flood threats in the wake of storms which have battered the country with high winds and heavy rain.

Scientists warn that climate change is raising the risk of flooding because winter storms will bring more heavy rainfall in a warming world.

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