Delivering sustainable flood risk management: guidance (2019)

Second edition of statutory guidance to SEPA, local authorities and Scottish Water on fulfilling their responsibilities under the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009.


Flooding can endanger lives and livelihoods, and disrupt the services that support our health, social and economic wellbeing. Although it will never be possible to eradicate flooding, a wide range of actions can be taken to reduce the likelihood and manage the impacts of flooding (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Examples of actions to tackle flood risk

Figure 1 Examples of actions to tackle flood risk

The Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009 (the Act) has created a framework for the assessment and management of flood risk, which is supported by new responsibilities on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), local authorities, Scottish Water, Forestry Commission Scotland, Cairngorms National Park, Local Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and other designated responsible authorities.

Delivering sustainable flood risk management provides statutory guidance to these organisations on fulfilling their responsibilities under the Act. It also provides contextual information on how these responsibilities align with the Government’s wider policy framework for reducing flood risk and improving how flood risk is managed.

Why we need this new approach

In the past, development on flood plains and along coasts took place with less knowledge of the risks associated with such development than we have available to us today. In places, this has left us with a complex and difficult legacy to manage.

Some past interventions also mean that we have lost features of our natural landscape that can help store and slow flood waters, including flood plains, saltmarshes and wetlands. In urban settings, a similar trend has occurred as our towns have expanded and green spaces, gardens and other natural drainage features have been lost.

Climate change predictions suggest that, in future, summers may be drier in Scotland, winters are likely to be much wetter, and we can expect to experience more extreme weather events. Many parts of the coast will also experience rising sea levels. In combination with continuing urban creep (the loss of permeable surfaces within urban areas leading to increased runoff), this is placing increased pressure on our existing defences and potentially revealing new areas at risk of flooding.

To deal with current and future flood risk, we need to continue to improve our understanding of flood risk and deploy more sustainable approaches to tackling these risks. This means managing whole flooding systems, be they catchments or coastlines, in a way that takes account of all interventions that can affect flood risk.

Delivering the Outcomes

This guidance is part of the Scottish Government’s work to improve flood risk management across Scotland. The changes the Government wishes to bring about are set out in the following six long term key outcomes:

1. A reduction in the number of people, homes and property at risk of flooding as a result of public funds being invested in actions that protect the most vulnerable and those areas at greatest risk of flooding

The long-term aim must be to reduce the risk of flooding from all sources as far as is reasonable, taking full account of environmental, economic and social priorities. This means moving away from short-term reactive decisions and embracing proactive planning and investment decisions.

2. Rural and urban landscapes with space to store water and slow down the progress of floods

Our urban and rural landscape can play an important role in storing and slowing flood waters. Consideration has to be given to the competing demands on our finite land resources. Therefore, SEPA and the responsible authorities should work closely with land managers to consider how to maximise the reduction in flood risk that can be achieved through these processes. This will not only help to reduce flood risk, it will promote the healthy functioning of Scotland’s environment and the wildlife it supports.
3. Coasts and estuaries managed in a way which aims to reduce flood risk, respects the changing nature of the coast and takes into account potential impacts of interventions on flooding and erosion in adjacent areas.

Managing flood risk in one part of the coast or an estuary can have consequences elsewhere. Disrupting the natural movement of sediment can lead to changes in patterns of erosion and the associated flood risk. Flood management at the coast should be planned and coordinated in a way that takes account of natural processes and considers the impact of interventions to manage risk on adjacent areas.

4. Sustainable surface water management that decreases burdens on our sewer systems while also delivering reduced flood risk and an improved water environment

In both rural and urban areas, rainfall and resultant surface water run-off should be managed before it enters sewers and watercourses by allowing for increased capture and reuse of water; increased absorption through the ground; and more above-ground storage and safe conveyance of flood waters.

5. A well informed public who understands flood risk and adopts actions to protect themselves, their property or their businesses

Individuals, business and communities can play a role in helping to reduce the risks they face. This must be supported through improved awareness and access to information on flood risk and on simple actions individuals and businesses can take to protect themselves and others from the impacts of flooding.

This will build on and enhance the benefits of actions taken by public bodies for example: - through provision of flood warning, development planning, improvement of infrastructure and the active management of “at risk” sites by undertaking and maintaining flood protection work.

6. Flood management actions undertaken that will stand the test of time and be adaptable to future changes in the climate

Decisions taken today will have a profound impact on the likely flood risks that future generations will need to manage. Our strategies and actions to manage flood risk must reflect the needs of future generations and be adaptable to a changing climate.

Purpose of the guidance

Delivering sustainable flood risk management is statutory guidance issued under the Act. It explains to SEPA and the responsible authorities how they should fulfil their duty to:

Act in the way best calculated to manage flood risk in a sustainable way.

Guidance is provided on steps that should be taken to ensure full consideration of the social, environmental and economic impact of actions taken to manage flood risk. Guidance is also provided to SEPA on setting objectives and identifying actions for inclusion in flood risk management strategies and local flood risk management plans.

Delivering sustainable flood risk management is not an operational manual and it is not intended to prescribe how SEPA and the responsible authorities should fulfil their duties. It is, however, intended to ensure the adoption of consistent principles and approaches based on good practice lessons in flood risk management. The guidance is divided into the following topics:

1. Understanding flood risk

2. Understanding catchments and coasts

3. Integrated approach to flood risk Management

4. Surface water management

5. Selecting and implementing sustainable Actions

6. Engaging with the public

7. Delivering responsibilities collectively

The guidance is updated regularly to promote continuous improvement. Supplementary guidance notes may be published from time to time to further expand or update the guidance or related policy matters. These may address feedback on how the policy is being implemented, or to reflect changes to wider policies, such as climate change adaptation or planning policy.

The guidance has been prepared for a professional audience with knowledge of the topics covered. Although its main users will be SEPA and the responsible authorities, aspects of the guidance will be relevant to other public, commercial and voluntary organisations, as well as the public.

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