Last week, we held the second meeting with the project’s Stakeholder Competency Group. With representatives from the City Council, the County Council’s Emergency Services, the National Flood Forum and a regionally active flood action group (Severn and Avon Valley Combined Flood Group) we discussed project progress and future.
Communication with this group is an integral part of our project, to ensure the project remains relevant for actual flood risk management, and to provide avenues for our findings into policy and practice.
One of the many issues that came up was the often strong feelings of antagonism of flood victims vis-a-vis many formal institutions and authorities (see some of the previous entries on this blog). We noticed that in many cases communities cope rather well with floods, and that floods may even catalyse communal action and community spirit to degrees that would seem impossible under ‘normal’ circumstances. At the same time, however, many people remember the floods as times when formal institutions let them down, and also feel they get little support after a flood to deal with the aftermath and to manage their flood risk.
It was widely agreed in the group that formal institutions may forget floods much quicker than communities do, for example because other, more immediate policy items displace floods from their agenda. Another reason for this may be the restructuring of institutions in terms of responsibilities and personnel, so that those in charge of flood risk management today were not concerned with floods in 2007.
The question was raised whether the authorities’ forgetting in a way forces communities to remember themselves, rather than being able to pass off their responsibilities to the authorities. This is particularly relevant in a context where the relationship between citizens/communities and authorities resembles that of a ‘culture of dependency’. This term usually refers to an alleged phenomenon of the welfare state, where for example unemployment benefits create incentives for people not to seek jobs. A ‘culture of dependency’ is fostered, in this example, by a system that makes people dependent on state benefits to the extent that they hardly perceive any alternative source of income. In the context of flood memories, a ‘culture of dependency’ may be in part accountable for people’s frustration with the authorities’ response to the floods.
But what causes this feeling of dependency? Clearly, it is not just ordinary people’s fault, and it cannot be simply blamed on formal institutions either. Some stakeholders suggested that ‘current society’ may have stifled communities’ resilience, by imposing too many hurdles if a group of people wants to achieve anything. People today often have very little control over what goes on in their own communities, which can make them unable to cope in an emergency or to develop their resilience. Current ‘health and safety’ regulations, for instance, were mentioned as are one of the biggest obstacles to community action. Not being authorized/allowed to do what feels right engenders further reliance, and ultimately dependence, on local authorities and the concomitant feelings of impotency and not being responsible for anything that goes wrong. Another issue that plays into this may be that some people assume they have some sort of service contract with their Council – they pay council tax, and in return for that expect their drains to be cleared etc.
Luckily, there is a (growing?) number of community groups, engaged citizens and local government officers who are struggling to reinstate agency in communities (which is evident, for instance, in other posts on this blog), which may be crucial for developing resilience to floods along the lower River Severn.