Rising waters

Last winter's flooding was the most extreme on record, and the waters have already been rising again this year. For local authorities, planning and putting flood risk strategies in place is paramount, says Nicola Meadows, RWM event director at Ascential.

The severity and frequency of wet and stormy weather is on the rise in the UK, increasing the risk of damaging flooding. Last winter's floods have been confirmed as the most extreme since records began, causing devastation in Lancashire and Cumbria, as well as areas in southern Scotland.

The winter flooding of 2015-16 resulted in around 30,000 tonnes of water-damaged household goods being classified as contaminated and dumped in landfill sites. Councils were hit with a landfill tax bill over £2.25m, according to the Local Government Association, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales.

With wet and stormy weather already battering the UK this winter, flooding is again causing damage to homes and businesses. Not only do landfill sites, waste processing plants and recycling centres have a critical part to play in the clean-up after a flooding event, they also pose a high pollution potential if they themselves are at risk of flooding. 

Be prepared

Nicola Meadows

Just as there is no mystery in the link between high rainfall and flooding in the UK, there is also no excuse not to have contingency plans in place. It is important to ensure that waste collections can start up again as soon as possible after a flood by carefully selecting the location of waste processing sites and designing sites to be resilient.

In the autumn of 2000, a disaster occurred at a waste treatment and storage site operated by Cleansing Services Group near Gloucester. A major storm caused a huge fire at the site, consuming around 180 tonnes of mixed chemical waste. Following that, the fire-damaged site, which is alongside the River Severn, was hit by a flood just a couple of days later.

The incident raised two particular areas of concern: the fire risks of storing mixed waste materials at waste transfer stations and the risk of flooding on major hazard sites. After this incident, the Environment Agency published a report on the lessons learnt, which worryingly concluded that many sites are located on an indicative flood plain and are therefore susceptible to either fluvial or tidal flooding.

It also said that many sites were built during the 1950s and 60s and the flood defences provided at the time might not be adequate to protect against the anticipated effects of sea-level rise and climate change. It highlighted the fact that, since these operations may not have experienced flooding in the past, flood risk might not be properly addressed as part of the on-site and off-site emergency plans.

New reality

Central government, local authorities and resource and waste management professionals must adapt to this new reality of increasingly stormy winters and rising sea levels. Notifying and mobilising waste management teams ahead of a large storm, or a period of prolonged rain in a flood-prone area, is a clear first step.

The Environment Agency website highlights flood risk areas, and issues flood warnings whenever there is a risk.

Planning for flooding should be a requirement under any resource and waste management company's Environmental Permit. Permit holders should keep their plan under review and contact their local Environment Agency office directly in case of flooding.

Technology is helping with flood forecasting. The Environment Agency offers a real-time flood information service, for instance, which includes a smart phone app giving live flood warning data tailored to the locality of the subscriber.

Some councils classify all flood-damaged items from households as contaminated and hazardous, and send this all to landfill. But following the winter 2015-16 floods, the Environment Agency said recycling could still be possible in many cases. At the same time, the Department for Communities & Local Government said that local authorities could claim compensation for costs related to flooding - another incentive to deal with flood-damaged waste appropriately.


With rising sea levels, heavy rainfall and increasingly fierce storms looking set to be regular features of the UK's winters, our future working and living spaces need to be designed around the concept of survivability as much as sustainability.

Drainage systems need to be adequate to cope with more frequent heavy rainfall, while careful consideration needs to be given to how water is discharged downstream. Planting more trees on flood plains is one natural flood management measure that offers a simple and cost-effective way to boost absorption and drainage rates and reduce the peak height of floods, for instance. Flood risk will be an integral part of the design of our future urban areas.


These key topics and many others will be featured at RWM 2017 (12 -13 September at NEC Birmingham) as part of the seminar programme where government, businesses and regulators will come together in high-level discussion.