Battle for the Floodplains: An Institutional Analysis of Water Management
and Spatial Planning in England

Potter, Karen (2013). Battle for the Floodplains: An Institutional Analysis of Water Management
and Spatial Planning in England.
PhD thesis University of Liverpool.



Dramatic flood events witnessed from the turn of the century have renewed political attention and, it is believed, created new opportunities for the restoration of functional floodplains to alleviate the impact of flooding on urban development. For centuries, rural and urban landowning interests have dominated floodplains and water management in England, through a ‘hegemonic discourse alliance’ on land use development and flood defence. More recently, the use of structural flood defences has been attributed to the exacerbation of flood risk in towns and cities, and we are warned if water managers proceeded with ‘business as usual’ traditional scenarios, this century is predicted to see increased severe inconveniences at best and human catastrophes at worst. The novel, sustainable and integrated policy response is highly dependent upon the planning system, heavily implicated in the loss of floodplains in the past, in finding the land for restoring functioning floodplains. Planners are urged to take this as a golden opportunity to make homes and businesses safer from flood risk, but also to create an environment with green spaces and richer habitats for wildlife. Despite supportive changes in policy, there are few urban floodplain restoration schemes being implemented in practice in England, we remain entrenched in the engineered flood defence approach and the planner’s response is deemed inadequate. The key question is whether new discourses and policy instruments on sustainable, integrated water management can be put into practice, or whether they will remain ‘lip-service’ and cannot be implemented after all. Against the backdrop of a broader modernity debate, in this thesis the English floodplain emerges as a ‘battle site’ where the planner is caught in the cross fire of an ideological clash between economic (armed with technology) and environmentalist (allied with nature) arguments and preferred change in land use. Furthering interpretative research and discourse analysis to tap and explain belief and knowledge systems rather than rational ‘fluvial systems’ per se, the thesis delves deeper than previous research, into the mind sets and ‘irrationalities’ of actors’ practices on the floodplain. The policy response advocating ‘making space for water’ and floodplain restoration is based on an overstretched steering optimism, and will continue to prove too radical if the mediating and tempering political-institutional context is not seriously addressed. If there is true commitment from the UK government, closing the current implementation deficit on floodplain restoration will require the recognition and amelioration of persisting power structures within government agencies, founded on technological and economic rationalities, and permit the planner to share responsibility, unfettered by one sided growth objectives, to find new ways of working across sectors and disciplines towards sustainable, water sensitive towns and cities.

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