On 28 April, the Department of the Natural and Built Environment hosted an excellent CPD event organised by one of our accrediting professional bodies, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (the Tyne and Humber regional branch). About forty practitioners, staff and students, gathered to hear about an innovative and exciting project in Sheffield to improve flood defence protection in the Lower Don Valley. The really interesting and exciting element within this project was the award winning partnership led by Sheffield City Council to fund and implement the scheme. Sheffield Chamber of Commerce worked with the City Council to enable the involvement and co-funding of the scheme by private businesses in the Lower Don Valley through the mechanism of a Business Improvement District. Work has also been undertaken by a local social enterprise, the River Stewardship Company , to involve volunteers and engage with local communities and riparian owners in the valley.
We heard from the three main partners in the scheme. Steve Birch, Principal Development Officer at Sheffield City Council, described the main aims of the project and the way the partnership developed. The following information is also provided on their excellent web site. Working closely with the Environment Agency, the main aim of the project was to develop a flood defence scheme for the Lower Don Valley. The valley is a critical economic area for Sheffield, second only to the city centre, but was devastated during the floods in 2007.
Images from the 2007 Sheffield floods
The proposed scheme will involve improved defences at over 50 works locations along an 8km stretch of the River Don between the Wicker and the Blackburn Brook at the M1. The aim is to protect over 250 businesses and thousands of jobs, as well as ensuring that the valley remains an attractive place for new investment and a great place to do business.
In particular, improved flood protection should help businesses in the area secure flood risk insurance, and potentially at more competitive rates. The scheme has been modelled on the basis that it needs to protect against a one in every hundred years flood, as well as taking into account the increased risk of flooding due to climate change over the next twenty-five years.
The project budget of £19.04m is now fully secured, with over 90% of costs coming from Defra and the Environment Agency. However, according to Steve Birch, this money would not have been unlocked if it hadn’t been for a significant contribution of £1.4 million from the private businesses most affected by flooding. This was made possible thought the development of a Business Improvement District (BID).
Business Improvement Districts are not for profit arrangements whereby businesses agree to fund specific activities in a clearly defined area to strengthen their success and sustainability. In December 2013, affected businesses in the Lower Don Valley voted in a ballot with a majority in favour of the BID proposal (with a turnout of 35% and a majority of 82% on the count of votes received, and a majority of 95% on the count of rateable value of those parties that voted). The BID term is a period of 5 years between 1st July 2014 and 30th June 2019.
Richard Wright, Chief Executive of Sheffield Chamber Commerce, has clearly been a champion for the BID approach from the beginning. He described how the main financial benefits of the scheme to businesses in the valley had to be underlined, and promises of an open and honest consultation with the private sector emphasised. Added value to the private businesses will come through the price and availability of insurance, cost competitiveness, and the security of avoiding potential recovery costs after future flooding events. Richard emphasised that a strong business case was the main motivation for these businesses, but open communication and a good steering group, with leadership, commitment and drive, were all important. Future monitoring to demonstrate that the scheme has delivered on the promised benefits will also be crucial.
Helen Batt from the River Stewardship Company then explained how this social enterprise, with the help of local volunteers and community groups, had also been involved in the scheme. The River Stewardship Company is a limited company with seven of the main environmental groups in Sheffield represented on its Board. Its main role is “little and often river maintenance” paid for by investment from the local riparian owners, and supported by engaged community involvement wherever possible. Their main work has included tree management, invasive weed treatment, debris and litter removal from the river channel, habitat creation and community engagement – often through the involvement of voluntary `river stewards`.
This project is clearly going to deliver real, tangible benefits, particularly for people living and working in the Lower Don Valley in Sheffield. The involvement of several hundreds of private businesses to help fund the project is a truly innovative approach.
The discussion following the speakers also proved interesting. Members of the audience quizzed the panel about baseline monitoring of the economic benefits, as well dealing with environmental impacts. There was clearly great interest in extending such an approach to other rivers in Sheffield – although the difficulties of co-ordinating a BID approach in areas with a greater range of both business and residential properties was emphasised.
There was some feeling that the project was quite narrowly defined. This was an opportunity to focus on multiple benefits – not just flood defence, but also access, amenity and biodiversity – for the wider range of public services those additional objectives can achieve. Whilst we all recognised that the private sector interests were likely to focus on the financial benefits to their companies primarily, it was noted that over 90% of the funds for the project came from the public purse. This could have been an exemplar of green infrastructure development leading to enhanced ecosystem services across a wide range of public benefits. There was a suggestion that the project steering group had been very much guided by the Environment Agency in terms of its own primary focus on flood defence. Perhaps the Environment Agency might see this is as something of a missed opportunity, given central government’s professed support for the green infrastructure approach within the National Planning Policy Framework?
Overall though – an excellent event, showcasing a really innovative project. Our thanks to CIWEM for organising the event at SHU, and to all three speakers. We learnt a great deal, and we look forward to supporting future events.