Michael Guthrie

Michael Guthrie is Community and Stakeholder Relations Manager for the Environment Agency (based at the EA’s national office in Bristol).

Date: 21 May 2011. Location: the former Anatomy Museum at Kings College London’s Strand campus.

The following is an edited transcript of the presentation given by Michael to the performance footprint #3 network event. Subheadings in the transcription have been added by Steve Bottoms.

Introducing the EA

I should start by saying a few words to explain what the Environment Agency does. We are the national environmental regulator for facilities such as power stations, oil refineries, and waste facilities – from big incinerators right down to small composting facilities. We also regulate all the fisheries around the country, and we also do a little bit with navigation. (We are responsible for the navigation on the Thames, and one or two others including the River Wye and a couple of navigations in the east of England — the rest of it is covered by British Waterways.)  And then, for the context of what we’re talking about today, one of the biggest things that we do, certainly the biggest in terms of money, is that we are the flood regulatory risk management organisation. Most people see us in terms of building great big defences: the Thames Barrier is the kind of thing the Environment Agency deals with.  And if you go along the coast and see great big bits of concrete all along the coastline, we’ll be the guys who have built those sorts of things. Equally, though, there are big expanses where we’ve actually retreated from the coastline, where we try and say, “Actually the best way of defending this is not to build concrete, it’s actually to allow nature to take its course.” And increasingly the organisation is moving towards recognising natural processes and trying to work with them rather than trying to be like King Cnut and work against them.

Working with communities


So we’re an organisation that does build big defences, and we have a certain amount of money available to build big bits of concrete. But that will never, ever protect everybody in the country from flooding.  A good example of this is what happens in Keswick when you have a flood. {shows slide image} Vast areas of Keswick just get flooded.  There will be defences through there, but even despite the defences, people will get flooded. So we have got to try and find ways of saying, “Okay, we can protect lots of people, however we can’t protect everybody.”  In the true spirit of the Big Society, we are all in this together. It’s not just the State that’s going to protect you, we have got to work together on this.  And I say the “Big Society” words because there is, of course, a sort of political imperative to do this from the current coalition government. But actually, as an organisation, we recognised some time ago that we could not protect everybody on our own and that we have to start working with people in a very different sort of way. We need to move towards being an organisation that’s working with people to try and help them protect themselves. 

Of course we have to be very careful about this, because not everyone is equally able to help themselves. It is certainly the case, for example, that the aftermath of flooding tends to hit those from less well-off communities more than others. The actual flooding can hit anywhere, any sort of income class at all, and the flood defences in this country are certainly not geared exclusively towards high property value areas. The whole of London is very well protected, for example. But there can be issues if people haven’t been able to afford decent home insurance, or if the local authority doesn’t have the resources to support people properly. There are rural communities now coming to us and saying, “we want to build a defence around our village.” And we’re saying, “we can’t build a defence around it, we haven’t got the money.” And they’re saying, “here’s the cheque.” We’ve got a community in the east of England who have done that, for example.  Now, they’re fairly well-off, so they can do it, and we will support them and let them do that. But it actually takes some Environment Agency time to support them to do that, which is potentially being taken from another community that can’t afford it.  So we’ve got to try and balance these things out, in many ways.  And we’re trying to encourage people to think about relatively low cost options – in terms of building greater resilience into people’s homes, for example. If we can get a community to say, “Yes, we would like to do something here,” there’s a chance of pulling in grants to actually provide that. So for instance, we can try to work with social housing organisations to say, “Okay, all of your residents are looking to do this, can we put some resilience measures in at the same time you’re going round and making some improvements?” 

So anyway, there’s a question mark over what this Big Society approach might mean. But for a whole mix of reasons, good and bad, we’re having to shift from the old, Big Brother stance of “We’ll protect you, we’re a very paternalistic organisation that wants to help and support you, and we’re trained to do that.” That’s what people pride themselves on in the organisation.  But now we’ve got to go out and work with other people to try and help them protect themselves, so it’s a bit of a challenge.  And the Environment Agency is actually quite a conservative organisation. It’s full of engineers and scientists, who work in a particular way, and we have a particular culture within the organisation which you would expect with people of that sort.  My communications team are constantly trying to challenge the way that the organisation thinks and works, and we have been moderately successful over the years in terms of trying to turn people around and say, “Look, we can’t just impose things on people that we work with, we have got to work with people outside the organisation.”


Communication Issues


What we’ve tended to do around communicating with people in the past is to have a big national campaign and say to people, “You’re at risk of flooding.” There will be messages saying things like “It could happen to you.” But we’ve found that these national messages just aren’t seen as being relevant to the majority of those at risk. They just don’t register with people, because flooding as an issue isn’t really part of the national consciousness. People will have seen on the news what happened in the 2007 floods, for example, and then there was some flooding in 2009 as well. It’ll be big in the media but then suddenly it just dies away. Local people are obviously still very affected by the consequences, but it’s just not there in the national consciousness as something to be concerned about. But we’ve also found, looking at how other countries operate to communicate in their different contexts, that around Europe we are quite a unique organisation in terms of having this kind of national-scale responsibility. In other countries there’s much more local responsibility in things like flooding, and so therefore one of the things that we’re trying to do is to look at that methodology, to try and work much more through the local context than at a national level, from the top down.


Even at local level, though, we often have communication difficulties. We have tended, for example, to talk about the probabilities of flooding in a particular area – so we might say, “a flood on this scale might be a one in 400 year flood.” And a lot of people, quite reasonably, will say “one in 400 year flood? It’s not going to happen to me then.” Or people will say, “it’s happened now, so it’s not going to happen for another 400 years.” And so we’ve got to be sensitive to how we put these things across, because a “one in 400 year flood” will probably happen every year, somewhere within England and Wales. We don’t know where, but it will happen pretty much every year. With climate change, too, we are expecting more flooding events, and more extreme events. We’re particularly anticipating more intense rainfall events which lead to flash flooding – which is inherently unpredictable for us. Anyway, one way or another we’re going to see communities being affected by flooding pretty much every year, and we’ve got to find some way of preparing them for that possibility, without necessarily scaring people with talk of impending disaster.


The other thing we’ve recognised is that, just because people might be aware of their risk of flooding, they don’t actually do anything about it. And this is strange for an organisation that is built on logic and engineering. There’s a sense of, “well, we’ve told people, they know that they’re at risk of flooding, why don’t they take some action? What’s wrong with them?!” We’ve told people the information, and it’s fairly clear that they should be doing something about it. But of course that’s not quite the way it works in real life. People won’t do something if there’s a 1% risk of it happening — and yet they’re going to play the lottery, where they have something like a 1 in 14 million chance of winning! This is just the reality of how people are, and we have to kind of accept that, and find ways to appeal to people at on a whole range of different levels. I’m personally one of those people who, if I’m told, “You’re at risk of flooding”, I’ll say, “Give me all the data, I will make a decision based on that.” And I will work through a very logical pattern, and that’s just me, and that’s probably why I work for the Environment Agency! (laughter) Whereas other people, I fully appreciate, are not going to be engaged in that way.


Thinking Laterally


What we’re trying to do, then, is move on from this idea that people follow some logical chain of events from (1) being unaware of flood risk, to (2) becoming aware of it, to (3) preparing for a flood, and then (4) actually taking appropriate action when a flood warning comes along. We’re recognising that this is not necessarily the case, and so in true Environment Agency style, we have decided to do a big piece of research to find out why these people don’t actually – once we tell them that they’re at risk of flooding – why they don’t actually do anything about it! So we’ve done research with members of the public, external organisations, social scientists, and we’re starting to move into some things slightly outside of our norm. 


And these are some of the findings. Those at risk may be aware of flood but they underestimate the probability that they will personally be affected.  It’s very common for people to say, “I accept I’m at risk at flooding but it won’t happen to me.”  Because it’s not something that’s that common in a lot of people’s consciousness, so therefore they’re less likely to think about it. They also don’t feel that it’s their responsibility. So now we’re trying to get people to think that, yes, it might be their responsibility to do something, and that there is positive action they can take in preparation, and that this might be better than being purely reactive, in the sense of, “Oh, there’s flood water coming through my door, I’d better do something about it.”


We’ve also found that there’s often a disconnection that people have from their local environment – they just aren’t aware of the water around them.  So, for example, we know there are some places in Lincolnshire where there are big drainage channels contained by dykes, but that people just on the other side of the same field aren’t even aware of what’s behind this big, raised bank. So when we say, “Oh you’re at risk of flooding,” they go, “What do you mean?  How can I be at risk of flooding?” “Look, see over there…?”  Or you if look at hilly areas where there’s risk of flash flooding, and we say: “You’re at risk of flooding,” a lot of people will just respond with: “Yeah, well pretty much everybody’s at risk of flooding. I live on a hill, there’s a possibility that with intense rainfall it may come in my back door, all of these things might happen but, you know, I can’t really be bothered with it.” 


Affective Responses


So there’s seems to be a whole bunch of reasons why people don’t respond to the logical imperatives from the Environment Agency.  And we’ve done some further research looking at, you know, what really motivates people, and the motivation is most intense when you get right into the centre of personal experience, in terms of habit, experience of flooding, belief in personal risk – as opposed to the external sort of national media attention that the government tends to favour. In fact, given the right motivation, some people have gone to some quite intense measures. There’s a guy in Oxford who got flooded, and now he has basically put new floors down, he’s raised his kitchen appliances off the floor to a certain level, knowing that that’s probably going to protect them, and he’s done various bits and pieces with his walls, so that they look like wood but they’re actually plastic! Now, that’s quite an extreme response, but I think he was shocked to come back off holiday and find that his house had been flooded. 

A better example, perhaps, is Cockermouth, which flooded really badly in 2009. But it so happened that, as an organisation, we had done quite a lot of work in Cockermouth just before it flooded.  Now, our guys working out there would say, “Yeah, it was really good, very timely, we really knew.”  I personally think that we were a bit lucky in happening to pick on Cockermouth, but we had done a lot of really good work engaging the community, and so when – not long afterwards – they suffered this massive flooding, the response from the community was very good. Despite the devastation that they experienced, there was some very positive feedback about the way the Environment Agency operated, and also about the way the community had been able to respond because of how we had worked with them. So the research that we did after this was starting to look at, “well, what are the things that really made a difference to you in terms of responding to this flood risk?” And the things that really seem to make a difference come into play at a very localised level, in terms of communities working together, getting each other aware of what is actually going on. 

The research also tells us that, right in the centre of what people respond to are the visual cues: “The flood water’s coming through, I think I’m going to have to do something about it”. And I suppose one of the things we would quite like to do is to find ways of thinking how we can get those visual cues to register with people before the flood actually happens, and get people thinking about it beforehand.  One of the things that we tried was to support a touring production of The Caravan, which was a play by Look Left Look Right Theatre Company that was based on interviews with people who were still living in caravans a year on from being forced out of their homes by the 2007 floods. The performance took place inside a caravan, for eight people at a time, and I think this was very powerful because what it did was really connect people with what was actually happening in the lives of people who had been affected. The actual flood may be fairly minor in terms of the impact that it has on people, but it can still cause really long term damage. For example, people in Hull were finding, six months after the 2007 floods, that – you know – “the floor’s gone a bit funny.” They’ve been away, come back, didn’t see much damage, but the rot had set in, and it was only six months later that they realised. And the people who were interviewed for The Caravan were talking six months, twelve months later, about this intense sort of stress after the fact – that the rain would start coming down and they’d be going, “What’s going to happen now?” Because they’d experienced these things. So the immediate impact of flood can be very bad, but it’s also the aftermath that, you know, we want to try and get people to think about. And I think The Caravan was a good example of that.

Practical Measures


Now, I talked about taking some appropriate action, but just what does that actually mean? There are some fairly temporary measures that actually have great potential for individuals to start action on. Rather than build a great big concrete block along somebody’s front wall, we can actually install temporary defences, and people can do that for a very small outlay if you want to protect your house, as an individual property. You could do this on a very local scale. With the recent flooding down in Cornwall, there were quite a few properties where, if they’d just put a little boarding in front of their houses, this would have actually prevented them from flooding. And that’s all very well in hindsight, isn’t it – “you could have done this” – but there are relatively small measures people can take to protect themselves from flooding. And if they protect themselves from flooding, they also avoid that aftermath.


Another thing that can happen when you get flooded is that the water comes up through toilets. Okay, you’ve blocked everything else up, but it comes up through the toilet into the house and you’re getting sewage coming up. But there are various measures you can take just to make sure that this doesn’t happen, so it’s important that people are aware and do something about it, so that they won’t have that utterly traumatic experience of having dirty water coming into their homes. And then, on a personal level it can make a big difference just encouraging people to put all their prized possessions in a watertight box. You can replace a TV, you can replace things like fridges, doors, and carpets, but it’s very difficult to replace photographs of people who have departed, or various documents that you have – all of those precious articles that are really important to people.  


Now, this all points us back to the key challenge. How can we encourage everybody who’s at risk to take appropriate action before the flood happens?  And I use the word “the” as opposed to “a” flood because it’s “the” flood that affects you rather than “a” flood somewhere else.  It’s the one that has the potential to affect all of us.  Now, we as an organisation have been able to work really well with some rural communities – small  towns and villages – but there’s a real challenge in terms of, how do you connect with urban communities who maybe don’t have quite such an obvious connection with their environment as some of the rural communities?  I think you talked about London this morning, and how The Strand used to be a kind of beach, before they built out the embankment. So, you know, what was London like before we plonked all of this concrete down? We can’t see the “natural environment”, but there is still quite a lot of water coming down when there’s a big storm. It used to soak into the ground and would go off into channels, but now it comes down on a whole bunch of concrete and then has to go down some drains. And there’s a lot of times when it doesn’t fit down those drains, and then you get what we call surface water flooding.  So how do you try and connect people with that sense that, you know, we are living with a very artificial surface area? How can we encourage people to take action before the flood happens?  And the challenge I would propose is to think about this very much in an urban context. How do you connect with urban communities who may be transient, who may not have that immediate connection with the environment. How do you do that?  That’s the challenge.



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