Action must match ambition on Climate Adaptation Programme

Earlier this week, I participated in a debate in Parliament on the Scottish Government’s Draft Climate Change Adaptation Programme. The full debate can be viewed in the video opposite at 1:18:40 and my speech begins at 1:51:00.

The overarching aim of the programme is to set out an approach that will allow Scotland to build resilience to the impacts of climate change on our environment, infrastructure and society.  We know climate change is happening so in addition to reducing our climate gas emissions we also need to prepare for the more unpredictable, stormy weather that climate change will bring.

I chose to focus my remarks in the debate on the example of flooding and how we can embed adaptation to climate change in the planning process.

Over recent years, while the average annual rainfall has remained fairly constant, the Met Office has noted the marked increase in intensity of rainfall.  This has caused problems with flash-flooding and ties into the projections of climate scientists that more severe weather patterns will see the risk of flooding increase.

In the face of increasing risk, I believe it makes sense that we should promote a planning system that routinely tests decisions on applications to avoid increasing flood risk.  Through upcoming work on the Scottish Planning Policy and National Planning Framework, the Scottish Government has the opportunity to embed its approach to climate adaptation in the planning system.

Water of LeithHowever, it is clear that adaptation measures to address flooding risks need greater priority and urgency as demonstrated by the situation at the Water of Leith in Edinburgh.

The flooding of the Water of Leith in 2000 was one of the first major issues I had to address both as an MSP and the Minister for Environment.   The flood damage and its aftermath generated significant contact from constituents and businesses who needed support.  At the time I remember local people being concerned not only by the immediate impact on their properties but on action to reduce the risk of it happening again.

Unfortunately, what has unfolded in the 13 years since has been an object lesson in how not to manage a major project.   Changes to the funding system used by the Scottish Government in 2007 which removed the 80% grant support which had previously applied saw the project delayed and split into three phases.

The first phase was recently completed, but the second phase faces a funding shortfall of £6m and the third has been shelved until additional money can be found.  I am therefore pleased that when I raised the specific issue of funding with the Minister for Environment last week he offered me a meeting to discuss the issue further.

While I can explain to people the complex reasons why this project has faced delay after delay, it’s not possible to justify how it can take 13 years to deliver only part of the scheme.

This was summed up neatly by a constituent who contacted me during the recent bad weather over the festive period.  All these years later, she still feels nervous every time it rains as she remembers the chaos caused by the flooding.

My purpose in relating climate adaptation to the experience of those at the Water of Leith is to demonstrate that this is not an academic concept.  It is one which has a real and lasting impact on people’s day-to-day lives.  As flood risk increases, so too does the risk to people of injury, mental ill-health and even death.

The analysis of consultation responses published by the Scottish Government showed support for the broad concepts and the general direction of travel in the adaptation programme.  However, as has often been the case with this Government’s record on climate change, concerns exist about whether action will live up to ambition.

For example, councils across the country have a massive role to play in our approach to climate change, but the detail of their role in delivering the adaptation programme is missing or understated.  The organisations who responded to the consultation made clear the need for guidance, tools and training for those involved in delivering change to ensure they have the skills and capacity to take on the task.

It is vital that the Scottish Government takes these and other constructive criticisms on board if we are to take effective action on climate change and ensure that communities are resilient to the changes that entails.

We also need more practical advice for homeowners, businesses and public sector organisations about techniques and best practice for maintaining our green spaces and built environment to help reduce flood risks.