In the summer of 2007 our home was flooded and we had to move out of our home for a year, with our three children under the age of ten. Pretty much everything in the downstairs of our house went on several large skips, including our kitchen and all the plaster, as walls were stripped back to the brick.
We were not the only ones, as all our neighbours, and many other people across the town and the county, were similarly affected. In recent years other severe storms have created many other incidents, and of course surface water flooding remains a perpetual factor on our roads after even moderate rainfall. I wish I could say that I have noticed an improvement in the years since, in the ways in which flood risk and climate change are considered by the Council, the Environment Agency, Severn Trent Water and other agencies, not to mention the national governments. But not so. This is not the place to rehearse these failings, though it is worth noting that they have been accompanied by a shift in power to developers for planning decisions that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. It is common now to find that sites are accepted for ambitious and lucrative schemes that were refused modest planning applications in the past – for instance, because of flood risk, or because they were in areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Partly as a result of this larger situation I was instrumental with some local councilors and citizens, in setting up a local flood action group, first in Charlton Kings, where we live. However, for a host of reasons, we have looked recently to widen our scope to become a group addressing environmental and flooding issues for the whole of the Cheltenham catchment. We have various experts on our group and it crosses party lines. We work very closely with research experts in the University, some of whom were responsible for setting up a scheme in Stroud that remains a kind of model for us. It is worth noting though that it took a community group – like ours – and not national or local government to implement this.
If this is one measure then of the kind of gaps and imbalances in the current state of things that make community groups a necessity, then another clear indicator is the current Cheltenham plan. For all the rhetoric of ‘sustainability’, ‘green infrastructure’, ‘landscape’ and ‘environmental quality’ there is no mention in the plan of flood risk, and water management, quality and drainage, nor of the specificities of our catchment. There is also no mention even of the Government’s recent 25 year Environment plan (which highlights the need for natural flood management solutions; for adapting to climate change; and building in resilience where there is risk) nor the National Policy Planning Framework. It is another telling omission for instance, that there is no mention of a key principle of the government’s plan that planning should ‘embed’ an ‘”environmental net gain” for development, including housing and infrastructure’, on such matters as flood protection, and water and air quality.
We are drafting a document outlining these and other concerns, but it is worth noting in closing a further and crucial omission in the plan of interest here, and highlighted by our experiences as a group. There is no attempt genuinely to address the existing asymmetry between the interests of the developer on the one hand, and the community and citizens on the other. This is inseparable from the need for much greater transparency in planning decisions. Planning officers are responsible to the public, and borough councillors to the public, and both parties need to be not only mindful of this, but also empowered to carry out their decisions in an independent and open manner, so that they can make informed and open decisions based on proper training, and unencumbered by party affiliation, the influence and interests of developers, or any other constraint.
(This article was written by John Hughes)