Finding "Space for Water": crossing concrete policy thresholds in England

Potter, Karen (2012). Finding "Space for Water": crossing concrete policy thresholds in England. In: Warner, Jeroen Frank; Van Buuren, Arwin and Edelenbos, Jurian eds. Making Space for the River: Governance Experiences with Multifunctional River Flood Management in the US and Europe. London: IWA Publishing, pp. 89–101.



The discourse of "flood defence", deeply rooted in English historical traditions, has been contested in recent years. For centuries, water management in England has been dominated by agricultural and landowning interests. Through the persistent widening, deepening and straightening of channels, the removal of bankside trees and other obstructive vegetative growth, English rivers and streams have been engineered into what are essentially "arterial drains", their purpose to expel water from the land in the quest for self-sufficiency in crop production. A major strategy of engineered flood defences followed in the wake of the great storm and catastrophic floods of 1953 that "invaded" the east coast of England and claimed over 300 lives, said to have invoked the protection of society, its capital and infrastructure agains the incursions of wild nature (Adams et al. 2004). Nonetheless, after having expended great effort to tame rivers to protect crops and development now lying vulnerable on the floodplains, it has more recently been recognised that this engineering of streams and rivers has come at a great cost to the landscape, riparian and aquatic ecosystems. Moreover, frequent and devastating flood events have also been increasingly recognised as direct consequences of established river management and development policies.

The ensuing section of this chapter delves back from the 13th to early 20th century, to describe the most important circumstances shaping the historical flood defence discourse, identifying key forces and factors which set out early (and persisting) institutional arrangements in water management. Section three reveals signs of change in the deep-seated structural engineering approach from the 1980s, tracing the rise of contesting voices and the discursive renewal from "defence" to "making Space for the River"; embodied in the English Government's cross-sectoral, strategic programme "Making Space for Water" launched in the Spring of 2005. The resulting institutional arrangements in water management are described in section four, and a case study of an innovative flood risk management scheme on the river Quaggy Sutcliffe Park, Greater London in section five illustrates the change in perception and approach at the time of this discursive renewal. Section six expands horizons to the national scale with further examples of "making Space for the River", yet describes how those are isolated schemes and England persists with a reliance on hard-engineered defences. The chapter concludes with an institutional analysis of how power thresholds prohibit a broader application of the new policy paradigm in England.

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