Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Northern Floods - a Case Study

The Sustainable Futures Report podcast published on Friday 8th January 2016.

This week I take stock of the recent floods and look at them as a case study in sustainability. I can speak with some first hand experience because I live in York. Although we have a riverside house we were always at least 2m above the water. York made all the headlines over Christmas, but people in Cumbria had already been flooded three times in December, buildings had been washed away in Manchester and there were floods in Scotland and Wales. As I write this, further floods are expected in Scotland. Elsewhere floods have devastated parts of South America, tornadoes have destroyed houses in the US and Texas has been coping with snow. 

View from my window
Unseasonal and violent weather looks very like the consequences of climate change, but the purpose of this episode is to look at how people have been affected, to highlight the unforeseen consequences and to understand where plans failed or where plans didn’t even exist. To understand what we should do now. I will comment on the political reaction, but this is not a political message except to say that we are all affected by the consequences of political decisions. We must take them into account when we plan, and if we think it’s appropriate we should campaign to change them. That’s just one part of the supply chain. There’s a link to my Green Supply Chain Workshop video on the website here .

On 15th January - next Friday - I’m appearing on the Voice America Business Elevation Show. There’s a link for more details here.

Parts of York flood every year. Most properties are defended and the damage is usually small and has little effect on most of the city. On Christmas Eve the Independent newspaper published a front page photo of a cyclist in ankle-deep water on the edge of the River Ouse with a caption claiming that York city centre was flooded. I sent them this letter:

“Nice picture of York on today's front page but you should know that the Ouse floods like this every year. Very few properties affected and certainly none in the city centre. You've misreported this previously!

Cumbria is where the problem is, but perhaps that's too far north for you Southerners. “

And they published it on Boxing Day. Ironically, within 24 hours the centre of York had suffered its worst flooding for 30 years.

What happened was this. Just below the city centre the River Foss joins the River Ouse. The Ouse is by far the bigger river, so when it is in flood it not only prevents the Foss from draining into the Ouse, but it backs up and causes the Foss to break its banks. This is what happened up until 30 years ago when they built the Foss Barrier. The barrier is lowered in times of flood and eight pumps keep the level of the Foss down by pumping its water around the barrier and into the Ouse. Worked perfectly in 2000, for example, when water levels rose higher than they did last week. However, on Boxing Day the pumps, with a rated output of 30 cubic metres/second, that’s 30 tonnes of water per second, were unable to keep up. The pumps are electric and the water rose to a level which threatened the control room. If it had got any higher and the pumps had stopped, with the barrier closed the Foss would have kept on rising and flooding more and more of York. While there was still power, the decision was taken to prevent this by opening the barrier. Of course this meant that the Ouse rushed in and some 600 properties were rapidly flooded. 

It appears that this was a Black Swan - an event that nobody had foreseen but perfectly logical in hindsight. Although there had been warnings for some years that it was time to upgrade the pumps. Nevertheless, because opening the barrier was considered so improbable there does not seem to have been a contingency plan. The consequences were far more widespread than anybody expected. Many residents were not evacuated until the middle of the night and had to be taken out by boat. For many of them it was too late to move their cars before they were submerged. For those whose houses and businesses were flooded the consequences are immense. 40% of businesses never recover from a flood. In flooded homes the downstairs furniture, carpets and appliances are destroyed. It can take six months to a year to dry the house out and it may be necessary to remove and replace contaminated plaster on the walls. Some people are insured, but with insurance assessors rushed off their feet they certainly won’t get immediate  payouts. If they have maxed out their credit cards for Christmas they could have serious cash flow problems. Some people are not insured at all. And other people looted the abandoned properties. I’m quite ashamed to say I live in a place where that would happen.

The barrier was repaired very quickly with extra pumps and generators airlifted in by Chinook helicopter. By Wednesday the Foss was pumped almost dry, ready to contain the next flood surge, but by then the damage had been done. The government has appointed a Floods Envoy and has promised £40m to Yorkshire, although repairs in York will take £10m alone.

In York the telephone exchange is on the bank of the River Foss. The floods knocked it out. For 36 hours there were no landlines, no internet and limited mobile reception. In turn this meant that many ATMs in the city stopped working and businesses could not accept card payments because their terminals wouldn’t work either. In any case business was very slow in York in the week after Christmas. The crowds of sale shoppers largely stayed away. With no internet I thought I might have to travel to Leeds to upload last week’s episode although it came back on in time. Getting to the station would have been a problem. Many roads were flooded so the only way from one side of town to the other was via the bypass - a 5 or 6 mile drive instead of a half-mile walk.

Let me add a personal story. The weekend before Christmas our daughter and family came to stay. Somehow - nobody saw - our 7-year-old granddaughter managed to fall over in the lounge and break her arm in two places. This was Sunday night. We drove her to A&E. She was seen immediately, X-rayed and had an operation under general anaesthetic to set the bones. She was kept in overnight and returned in the morning with plaster from shoulder to palm. The NHS is truly wonderful. Now think what could have happened a week later. 
  • No phones to call an ambulance.
  • Roads blocked so we would have spent time trying to find a route before heading out to the bypass and back in to the other side of the city - probably an hour’s journey rather than 10 minutes.
  • At the hospital, if the power was down there would have been an emergency generator, but would that provide enough power for X-rays?
  • If a specialist was needed but was not on site there would have been no phones to call him in. The chain of consequences from the flood is long.

Just down the road from York, Tadcaster sits on the River Wharfe. This week floodwater partially demolished the 300-year-old bridge which joins the two halves of the town, fracturing a gas main. Houses were evacuated while gas engineers sorted that out. The bridge cannot be used, even by pedestrians. There is a muddy footpath that crosses the river on an abandoned railway viaduct, but that’s all. Vehicles have to go out to the A64 and come back to get from one side of the town to the other, but it’s not as simple as it might sound. The A64 is the main Leeds-York dual carriageway and there is a junction on the Leeds side of the town and another on the York side. The problem is that one of these is a one-way junction. This means that drivers on the Leeds side of town who want to go to the York side need to join the A64 but have to pass the town and pass the junction where York-bound traffic from Tadcaster joins the road because there is no exit there. They carry on to the next roundabout and then come back again to the slip road which takes them into the town. Diversions of 16 miles or 20km have been reported. There were plans to close the A64 for extensive resurfacing from 4th January, but I understand that the Highways Agency have agreed to put this on hold. What’s the cost of standing down the labour, the plant and the materials which must have been all ready to carry out a project scheduled to last several weeks? Another unforeseen consequence. And the bridge is expected to cost £3m to repair and to take a year.

These are my local examples. I’m sure other people have had it equally bad or worse in other parts of the UK - and in the world.

The point of recounting all this is to look at lessons to be learned, for any business, organisation or individual. Some of these events could be defined as something which Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call a Black Swan: something so improbable that no-one would see it coming, but which often looks perfectly reasonable with hindsight. For more on black swans see his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, available from your favourite bookshop. 

But some events are unforeseen because no-one has sat down and not only considered their immediate risks but also looked at the consequences of those risks. People in York might have known that they were safe from flooding whatever the weather, but failed to realise that the telephone exchange was right on the edge of the river and could go down and cause them problems. It’s all part of the supply chain. Of course the Foss Barrier has successfully protected the city for 30 years, in floods even higher than these. Clearly nobody believed that the exchange was at risk. Homes and businesses were nevertheless affected by the loss of telephone lines and internet. If consumers cannot access ATMs and merchants cannot use card terminals then business stops. It’s a supply chain issue - do you remember my green supply chain workshop? There’s a link to the video at The message is that you may or may not be the weakest link in the supply chain, but if there is a weak link it can be very damaging to your business for no fault of yours. You need to protect yourself if you can. Have you carried out a strategic risk analysis recently? Remember, not all risks are overnight disasters like floods. Some are more subtle and take much longer to take effect. Changes in technology, demographics, weather patterns, fashions can all damage your business. The danger is that these changes can be slow and subtle and that you will wait for things to get back to normal before you realise that this is the new normal. By then it could be too late.

As I said earlier, 40% of flooded businesses never recover and flooded homes take 6 months to a year to be made habitable, quite apart from the financial hardship that everyone will suffer. We can only sympathise, and if the opportunity arises, offer help to these people. There are several hardship appeals across the country. Meanwhile, how sure are you that your business is secure? You may not be in a flood plain. Your challenges might come from a completely different dimension. You owe it to yourself - and your colleagues and staff - to give some thought to your own security. You could start with a green supply chain workshop, tailored to your organisation. Or just with a chat. I’m on 07803 616877 or email at

I’m Anthony Day and this latest edition of the Sustainable Futures Report draws to a close. Just time to remind you that the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange - Powering the Northern Powerhouse - takes place in Harrogate on 14th April, so put it in your diary. We have invited a minister and hope to get either Amber Rudd from DECC or James Wharton, minister for the Northern Powerhouse. I’ll keep you informed. The conference website opens shortly and if you’re a member of a professional association you’re entitled to a discount. If your professional association or institute has not yet signed up for this benefit tell them to give me a call - 07803 616877 or

The next Sustainable Futures Report will be out next Friday. I’m probably going to talk about water.

This is Anthony Day. 
This is the end of another Sustainable Futures Report. Have a great week!