Consumers key to working with nature to create flood resilient towns and cities

A blog post by Consumer Scotland Water Advocacy and Policy Officer Lillie Ashworth

Innovative solutions are required now and into the future if Scotland is going to address the increasing risks to our towns and cities from flooding.

Climate change is already fuelling more extreme rainfall in Scotland. This increases the likelihood of floods, which can have devastating and long-lasting impacts on communities.

The situation is exacerbated by creeping urbanisation. This involves the creation of more impermeable surfaces such as roads, pavements and roofs at the expense of green spaces which help to absorb rainwater.

By way of example, Edinburgh lost an average of more than 15 football pitches of vegetated land per year to urban creep between 1990 and 2015.

This loss of green spaces to housing and other developments increases the amount of rainwater that can both flood local communities and that enters Scotland’s combined sewage and drainage system.

During short and intense periods of rainfall the combined sewage and drainage network can struggle to cope. To prevent the mix of rainwater and sewage backing up in streets and homes it can be discharged from the sewerage system into Scotland’s rivers and waterways.

Although traditional infrastructure such as water and wastewater treatment plants, pipelines and reservoirs are under strain, by working with nature, there are opportunities in Scotland to better manage the risk of flooding.

There is an increasing recognition that the creation of natural or semi-natural landscapes within urban and rural areas – so called Blue-Green Infrastructure (BGI) – can help reduce flood risk by giving rainwater a place to collect and be absorbed before it is released more slowly back into the environment.

BGI projects such as rain gardens, ponds, green roofs, and porous paving are also known to deliver ecological, economic and environmental benefits for communities and for nature. These multiple wider benefits include greater access to public green spaces, the reduction of urban heat and air pollution, more active travel networks such as cycling paths and other mental and physical wellbeing impacts.

The Scottish Government is currently working with key organisations, including Consumer Scotland, with a view to proposing new legislation to ensure the Scottish water sector is able to effectively respond to and adapt to climate change impacts.

As part of this wider work, Consumer Scotland has gathered evidence to understand the barriers preventing a greater uptake and successful implementation of the types of BGI solutions described above.

Our report Overcoming Barriers to the Adoption of Blue-Green Infrastructure shows various challenges exist, including the availability and quality of land for BGI projects, current funding, legislative and policy and planning frameworks, and a lack of consistent approaches to measuring the benefits of BGI. Meaningful engagement with communities whose neighbourhoods are impacted by BGI is also important and can be inconsistent at times.

If BGI projects are to be effective and resilient over the long-term, bringing benefits to consumers and communities, these challenges need to be addressed.

Through our work, we have recommended that a central part of the solution is the development of an overarching strategy and shared vision for BGI in Scotland, supported by clear targets set out in legislation. This shared strategy is essential for developing a unified approach and vision for BGI, countering the trend of siloed working and helping to align resources.

Consumer Scotland has also recommended that an improved approach is developed to engage with consumers and communities across Scotland as partners in BGI projects. Consumer engagement in BGI projects should go beyond superficial measures, such as the provision of information, and instead give consumers a genuine opportunity to shape project outcomes. This will ensure that BGI projects match with the needs and aspirations of each community.

According to one survey, 95% of consumers in Scotland have not heard of the term ‘blue-green infrastructure’ before. The way this subject is communicated to consumers needs to be improved. Consumers need clear information that they can trust and understand, and there are opportunities for further consumer-led research to improve approaches to communication.

While many of the existing BGI schemes in Scotland are designed and delivered by local authorities and Scottish Water, individual consumers can also play their part by adopting smaller-scale solutions in their own homes, gardens or community areas, such as installing a water butt as part of a house renovation or opting for a permeable driveway.

Consumers are the first line of defence against the impacts of urban creep. Research shows that consumers are concerned about climate change and the environment and are keen to take action, but they require the right tools and incentives to do so.

For example, consumers in the process of carrying out home renovations might benefit from information and advice around household rainwater harvesting solutions provided in DIY and garden stores.

A considered approach should be taken to identify ways in which consumers can be encouraged to champion their own blue-green solutions, including a review of current incentives and disincentives in planning legislation.

The increasing risks from climate change to our towns and cities, require immediate and long-term solutions.  Taken together, these recommendations have the potential to bring significant improvements in the provision of blue-green infrastructure in Scotland as we adapt to climate change, while also delivering a range of beneficial outcomes for consumers and communities. We look forward to working with government and other key water sector stakeholders to advance this work.

This blog is the first in a planned series around the impacts of climate change on the water sector in Scotland.