Future Skills

Adapting to thrive:
innovative solutions to flood defence

How adapting flood defence funding has saved businesses hundreds of millions of pounds in Sheffield, UK and attracted new investment to the area

Philip Wilbourn FRICS


Wilbourn & Co – Chartered Environmental Surveyors

Extreme rainfall in 2007 led to widespread flooding in England and Wales, causing 13 deaths and an estimated £3.2 billion in damages. The risks from flooding will continue to increase with global warming and our profession can help towns and cities adapt to prevent future disasters.

Flooding and heavy rains have risen 50% worldwide in a decade.
European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (Easac)

In 2007 the Lower Don Valley (LDV) area in Sheffield suffered a catastrophic flood – the worst flood event since the Great Flood of 1864, with as many as 2,300 properties damaged or destroyed across Sheffield.

The LDV is particularly vulnerable to flooding because it is the lowest and flattest area in Sheffield. Based on river modelling, a 1-in-100-year flood event (1% annual likelihood) would affect approximately 250 businesses and 5,000 employees, and would cause potential damage to premises, plant, stock and public and infrastructure. This would amount to an estimated £95 million.

Philip Wilbourn volunteered to join a private sector-led steering group specifically formulated to develop unique solutions to mitigate the risk of flooding.

The economic impact of flooding is profound. Getting an affected business back up and running is exhausting.

The steering group was tasked with reducing the risk of flooding in the LDV to protect existing businesses, giving them security to invest and grow, safeguard jobs in the area, and reassure potential new investors that flood risk is being addressed to give them confidence that new development is viable. Philip knew that to achieve this outcome would require a creative approach to funding.

Securing both public and private funding for the project was vital. Philip and his team collaborated with local businesses, insurance companies and Sheffield City Council. Together, they created a Business Improvement District (BID) to generate the required private sector investment. The BID levy applied to businesses in the district was used to finance physical infrastructure works and maintenance of the river channel.

During the BID process, Philip and his team leveraged research commissioned by the RICS Research Trust to demonstrate to local businesses the importance of flood defence to sustain economic success. Sharing research about the impact of higher insurance premiums based on business vitality was critical in getting local businesses on board with the BID.

The private sector finance secured via the BID levy ensured the granting of the essential public sector funding from the Environmental Agency of £21.5 million to allow the scheme to go ahead.

£21.5 million
project funding

Serving local communities is part of the role of a chartered surveyor. This requires having the skills to adapt to the challenges we face within our built and natural environments.

The BID for the LDV Flood Defence Project became the first in the UK to take a new and innovative approach to BID legislation, using the framework to generate investment for a capital build project that aims to deliver long-term physical infrastructure improvements in the area.

Securing the public and private funding allowed for the LDV Flood Defence Project to move forward, including the construction of a continuous line of flood defence structures. Building the defence structures required working with businesses to access their land and build, as well as maintain and manage, the flood defences. Working with a volunteer group from the community to clear the streets of debris was also crucial.

Hundreds of millions of pounds' worth' of damage, significant health risks to the public and disruption to businesses have all been mitigated.

By applying leadership and partnership skills, adapting traditional approaches to funding flood defence systems to this unique set of circumstances, over 500 business properties and thousands of jobs have been protected. The LDV area remains an attractive place for new investment, since businesses can secure flood risk insurance and leverage capital finance as a result. Local wildlife can once again return to its habitats. The LDV Flood Defence Project has been nominated and shortlisted for two awards and received a Certificate of Excellence.

Importantly, funding for the project has become a national exemplar, serving as a model that other cities can adopt to generate investment for capital projects aimed to deliver long-term physical infrastructure improvements.

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