Roundtable debate

Resilient York – Roundtable with Speakers’ Debate, 4 Nov. 2016; A review

By Eloise Limmer and Duncan Marks (MA students in Conservation Studies (Historic Buildings), University of York)pdf download.


A summary of the finds of this review

1. Five current contentions were identified as existing in flood resiliency and need to be considered when proposing any new flood resiliency initiative.

The five contentions are the result of:

• Local v. national directives;

• Generic v. specific advice;

• Limits of social media;

• The existence of a ‘recovery gap’ in how different sections of the community experience a flood and recovery;

• Difficulties in disseminating academic and professional material to members of the public.

2. The central recommendation for future resolutions arising from the conference are related to empowerment.

The four themes of empowerment are:

• Better and clearer information for members of the public as to how best prepare and respond to a flood event;

• Develop the confidence of the public to challenge poor advice from insurers;

• Inform the insurance industry of conservation good practice in a post-flood context;

• Assist local authorities to streamline planning protocol for designated heritage assets by coordinating pre-approval applications of known flood sites.

3. Suggested ‘next steps’ for partner organisations include:

• Produce a ‘what to do in a flood event’ information pack;

• Assist in making conservation resources such as research and good practice guides available as post-flood advice;

• Assist the insurance industry better understand conservation good practice;

• Assist future research.

Tracy Wilcockson contributing to the Resilient York Roundtable debate.


Following an engaging day of presentations on flood resiliency and its impact on historic buildings and communities in York (and beyond), the Resilient York conference concluded with a 45-minute roundtable discussion.

This debate was chaired by Dr. Jane Grenville (Chair of York Civic Trust’s Planning Committee, Pevsner Author and Independent Researcher) and included a strong and welcome participation from the audience as well as many of the conference speakers and organisers.

The discussion began by returning to consider the main focus of the conference as guided by three broad questions: How can the civic and research community work together with people in York as a laboratory for dealing with some of these flooding-related issues? Being big issues, how do we deal with it on a local scale, individual level? What can the York Civic Trust and the University take forward as directed action from the conference?

From the debate that followed, a number of key themes can be drawn, which are used to frame this review.

1.  Identifying current limitations in resiliency

In addressing key issues that any future initiative from the conference would need consider, the roundtable debate highlighted five, current contentions in flood resilience and wider policy. These currently act as limitations in coordinating and aiding a stronger resiliency culture.

a.    Local v. national directives: Mirroring inherent political contentions between national and local governments, we need to ask how can we be strategic at a national level while also applying resiliency that is locally sensitive and responsive at the same time?

The process of designation is unhelpful here. It leads to inconsistencies between, say, flooding occurring in a conservation area and a neighbouring area which might not be a designated conservation area – even though only a few streets away. The two areas will involve different post-flood planning issues and hence flooding experience. We need to remember that unlike administrative regions, which are visualised and administered topographically, flooding is a horizontal phenomena that transcends administrative distinctions.

The ambitions of the York City Environment Observatory offers a promising way that the relationship between national and local directives, and their effectualness, might be measured. This project’s desire to carry out workshops that might bring together different stakeholders in order to use and test statistical data and how they engage with it and what they need from it.

b.    Generic v. specific advice: Connected with the contentions existing between local and national directives (as well as national and local heritage assets) are difficulties in addressing generic flood-related advice that is also applicable to specific needs. Representatives from Historic England conceded that the organisation struggles with the lack of administrative consistency when trying to provide broad advice and information on the impact of flooding on historic sites and fabric. They too often see individuals and organisations getting caught up in flooding debates in the national picture, but from doing so fail to deliver sufficient detail on either the national content in a generic way or the local perspective by offering specific advice.

The contention between the generic v. the specific was also identified as a problem insurance companies have with flood damage of historic buildings and objects. As this type of damage requires specific, tailored advice and expertise beyond the usual practice of the insurer, their generic response is to offer a replacement on their standard like-for-like basis.

c.     The limitations of social media: Social media is often lauded for its use in disseminating information and advice during flooding. However, the roundtable discussions brought to attention some of the limitations of social media in such events. This includes issues arising from rumours and incorrect advice given on social media; businesses exploiting the vulnerability of people in a flood, and those in authority having little control over directing what should be the key flood issues and information. Authorities are also prone to often being seen as ignoring members of the public due to the sheer scale of activity on social media during such events when it is impossible to answer all questions and requests for advice.

d.    Audience: While there is an existing body of academic research focusing on how building materials respond to flooding and how to successfully dry these buildings out after flooding, we are poor at disseminating it in an accessible format which is accessible to all. Connected with this is the need for a wider, general education of the public in (historic) building maintenance, especially the breathability of materials and how this can help post-flood.

e.    Temporal differentiation (ie. different rates of recovery): Discussions highlighted different post-flood recovery rates and how this impacts on different experiences of the event. For example, power and telecommunications and clearing flood debris in street areas can often be repaired and up and running again quite quickly after a flood, but homes and businesses are usually left alone to negotiate with insurers and consider repairs by themselves. This puts in place a ‘recovery gap’, leading to resentment and frustration, and often overlooked in the media.

2.  Identifying future resolutions

The debate highlighted a number of ways in which resiliency in York (and beyond) can be enhanced. The overarching theme of what is required is empowerment, a term used on several occasions in Heather Shepherd’s conference paper.

Empowerment can be understood in the following four themes.

a.    Information: By providing better and more accessible information, flooded communities will be empowered.

As we already know which buildings are in flood risk zones, we need to provide better information packs for them. These should not simply state that the property is in a particular flood risk zone. This is too generic. The pack needs to relay what measures the homeowner should consider taking in a flood event based on the period of their building, its fabric and what this means in terms of flood prevention and repair in the case of flooding. A more tailored approach would be to give each homeowner in a flood-risk street their own individual ‘house manual’ for them to keep next to their torch and emergency supplies for when the lights go out and they need to know what are the next steps to take in such a flooding event.

Aside from home packs, it is also suggested that points of exchange, such as estate agents and public transport, should be used to make information more accessible. In addition, offering face to face advice, possibly through volunteer roadshows involving conservation specialists, is also key in a flood event.

Alternative strategies of engaging members of the public is to make videos of affected people’s memories of flooding: what they learnt, what they did, what they did wrong (horror stories are easy to remember and empathise with those affected), and what they had never previously considered but would see as vital information now. The video clips should also feature experts giving advice on what to do. This approach is one way of addressing the audience issue highlighted above.

b.    Confidence: Working with insurance companies can be often complicated, especially so when it concerns a recent flood-damage historic building, furniture or an object of intangible personal value. However, empowering people with the confidence to challenge the insurance industry’s assumptions is key. If guidelines can be produced that homeowners can use to point to insurers they are likely to be empowered sufficiently to question the insurer’s recommendations and policies. It is about giving people the tools to do this.

c.     Insurance Companies: Further to the last point, insurance companies also need to be empowered to enable insurance decisions that are more sensitive to historic fabric than currently so. Once again, this form of empowerment comes from having better accesses to relevant material. Picking up from what Historic England have begun, the recommendation would be to use existing research into the drying out of historic buildings and present their findings, and tangible examples, to insurance companies. It is possible that if the right approach is presented, insurers will realise the potential to save their outlay of money.

d.    Planning Authorities: If insurance companies can be empowered by being given greater post-flood information in dealing with historic fabric, so can Planning Authorities. In the case of Local Authorities, this might come from considering planning-related issues that are likely to transpire from a flooding incident in a historic community. It was asked: how feasible is it to prepare pre-consent for designated buildings in known flood areas in York? Following from a similar project in Bradford, in York, there might be a Local Development Order which would enables certain rapid-response, post-flood repairs done in certain ways to affected listed buildings.

3.  Where next for Resilient York’s partners (York Civic Trust, York Conservation Alumni Association and the University of York) ?

One of the desired outcomes of the Resilient York conference is to act as a springboard for future initiatives that the partner organisations could lead or be involved in. With this in mind, a number of suggested ‘next steps’ were identified during the roundtable debate. These include:

• Produce an information pack for homeowners of historic homes helping them to understand what they can do to help prevent their home suffer flood damage and what to do if it does. This could be trialled in / or part of York.

• Assist in making conservation resources, such as academic research and ‘best practice’ guides, available to historic building and object owners, such as through producing web resources, facilitating further discussions with stakeholders and interested parties, and/or trialling roadshows.

• Assist in ways that help the insurance industry better understand the needs of homeowners of historic buildings and object damaged in a flood event.

• Assist future research of the impact of flood damage on historic buildings and community resilience.