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date: 25 November 2017

Scalar Politics in Flood Risk Management and Community Engagement

Summary and Keywords

Recent extreme hydrological events (e.g., in the United States in 2005 or 2012, Pakistan in 2010, and Thailand in 2011) revealed increasing flood risks due to climate and societal change. Consequently, the roles of multiple stakeholders in flood risk management have transformed significantly. A central aspect here is the question of sharing responsibilities among global, national, regional, and local stakeholders in organizing flood risk management of all kinds. This new policy agenda of sharing responsibilities strives to delegate responsibilities and costs from the central government to local authorities, and from public administration to private citizens. The main reasons for this decentralization are that local authorities can deal more efficiently with public administration tasks concerned with risks and emergency management. Resulting locally based strategies for risk reduction are expected to tighten the feedback loops between complex environmental dynamics and human decision-making processes. However, there are a series of consequences to this rescaling process in flood risk management, regarding the development of new governance structures and institutions, like resilience teams or flood action groups in the United Kingdom. Additionally, downscaling to local-level tasks without additional resources is particularly challenging. This development has tightened further with fiscal and administrative cuts around the world resulting from the global economic crisis of 2007–2008, which tightening eventually causes budget restrictions for flood risk management. Managing local risks easily exceeds the technical and budgetary capacities of municipal institutions, and individual citizens struggle to carry the full responsibility of flood protection. To manage community engagement in flood risk management, emphasis should be given to the development of multi-level governance structures, so that multiple stakeholders share fairly the power, resources, and responsibility in disaster planning. If we fail to do so, some consequences would be: (1), “hollowing out” the government, including the downscaling of the responsibility towards local stakeholders; and (2), inability of the government to deal with the new tasks due to lack of resources transferred to local authorities.

Keywords: localism, scalar politics, community engagement, capacity, power, politics, natural disasters

What Is Scale and Why Do We Need It?

The history of the terms scale and community engagement is long and difficult. Discussion of scale, politics of scale, rescaling, scalar politics, etc., have become increasingly prominent in the past 60 years (Cox, 2009), in particular, since the 1990s (Brenner, 1999, 2001, 2004; Cox, 1998, 2009, 2013; Marston, 2000; Marston, Jones, & Woodward, 2005; MacKinnon, 2011; McCarthy, 2005; Smith, 1990, 1992; Swyngedouw, 1996, 1997, 2004). Ideas on scale have become fragmented in the literature, being distinguished mainly in two research fields (Brown & Purcell, 2005). On the one hand, natural scientists often adopt the concept of scale “to describe the temporal and/or spatial range and magnitude of a process or observation” (Silver, 2008, p. 922). Subsequently, research largely regards the development of models with the objective being to transfer the results toward other socio-political stratigraphy (Reed & Bruyneel, 2010; Silver, 2008). On the other hand, social scientist see scale as an analytical framework for describing and analyzing interactions of social organisms (individuals or organizations) at different levels, such as how communities engage with stakeholders at regional, national, or global levels (Marston, 2000; Reed & Bruyneel, 2010; Smith, 1990; Taylor, 1982). Consequently, the concept of scale in social science is a dynamic concept (Reed & Bruyneel, 2010), often closely linked, for example, with discussions of decentralization/centralization of responsibilities and tasks and/or decision-making processes in environmental management (Cohen & McCarthy, 2014). Changes in current scalar construction have caused overall situational changes, such as more local autonomy to handle problems within the community (Silver, 1999). Therefore, the construction of scale continues to have a prominent role in the question of how community engagement, in flood risk management for example, is allowed, encouraged or hindered. Marston and Mitchell (2004) highlight that “geographical scale is centrally implicated in producing and sustaining citizenship formations” (p. 110). Usually, scalar re-arrangements encompass more than shifts in power and responsibilities. The process covers new organizational structures and practices as well as working relationships between stakeholders (Pugalis & Townsend, 2013). For example, the local capacity in terms of interest, language, knowledge, financial backup, and social networks, influences the involvement of local stakeholders in the flood risk management policy. Therefore, assessing and analyzing the spaces of engagement, spaces to act, and the capacity to act should be a primary focus in the debate on how scale influences community engagement (Perkmann, 2007).

Multiple disciplines have influenced and shaped discussion of scale, being reflected on four main trends in the literature: (a) orientation to the ontological status of the concept itself (Leitner & Miller, 2007; Marston et al., 2005); (b) desire of scalar politics and a change in scalar arrangements (Larson & Soto, 2008); (c) debates on the pragmatic advantages of scalar changes (Parkes et al., 2010); and finally, (d) evaluation of the possible and potential impacts of scalar changes (Castro & Nielsen, 2001; Swyngedouw, 1996; Thaler & Priest, 2014). In comparing the different concepts and theoretical directions within the academic disciplines, there is no consensus in several matters. For example:

a “vertical” differentiation in which social relations are embedded within a hierarchical scaffolding of nested territorial units stretching from the global, the supranational, and the national downwards to the regional, the metropolitan, the urban, the local, and the body.

(Brenner, 2004, p. 9)


platforms for specific kinds of social activities.

(Smith, 2000, p. 725)


scale not as an ontological structure which “exists,” but as an epistemological one—a way of knowing or apprehending.

(Jones, 1998, p. 28)

Research on scale is distinguishable in two main bodies of academia. First, the academic debate on scale in geography treats the concept as one useful for analyzing the interaction of natural processes, population, and their behaviors (Brown & Purcell, 2005; Levin, 1992; Sayre, 2005). The second group focuses on scale in the context of environmental governance discourse, especially within the social-ecological systems (SES) argument (Gunderson & Holling, 2002).

Academic Debate on Scale

Critical geography (or political economy)—sees the concept of “scale as a human construct with the purpose of meeting the needs of those who wield the most power, be it political, economic, or financial” (Silver, 2008, p. 924). This includes “a contingent outcome of structural forces and practices of human agents” (Cox, 2009, p. 885). In particular, Fainstein (1999) emphasized the importance of the social structures of each stakeholder involved in the decision-making process. In line with this, Wissen (2009) mentioned that “scales can only be understood in their relationship to other scales” (p. 888). Consequently, scale is based on an evolving social construction that social relationships organize and create rules for (Cox, 1998; Brenner, 2001, 2004; Gualini, 2006; Howitt, 1993; Swyngedouw, 1997). Because of the interactions between state and non-state stakeholders (Smith, 1990), Swyngedouw (2004) placed emphasis on the debate around scale as a socio-political process “that is always deeply heterogeneous and contested” (p. 34). In this way, the socio-political process is always unfixed; it includes an ongoing dynamic change that depends upon ongoing political conflicts between different stakeholders at different levels (Marston et al., 2005; Smith, 1990; Smith & Ward, 1987). Besides the political components, cultural variables heavily influence scalar politics; an example is the question of procedural justices in political engagement (Jones, 1998). Nevertheless, “it is largely accepted that the national state does not simply disappear when ‘new state spaces’ are produced” (Wissen, 2009, p. 886). An example is the implementation of the EU Floods Directive (see Figure 1).

Scalar Politics in Flood Risk Management and Community EngagementClick to view larger

Figure 1. Dialectical Interaction of Scales in EU Floods Directive.

Source: T. Thaler (2015), “Rescaling in Flood Risk Governance: New Spatial and Institutional Arrangements and Structures,” (PhD dissertation) Middlesex University, London, p. 27.

One might then foresee individual objectives of different stakeholders. For example, Marston and Smith (2001) expanded the concept of scale to incorporate social reproduction and consumption at the household level.

Scaled social processes pupate specific productions of space while the production of space generates distinct structures of geographical scale. The process is highly fluid and dynamic, its social authorship broad-based, and the scale of the household (or the home) is integral to this process. So too, we contend, is the scale of the body.

(Marston & Smith, 2001, p. 616)

In the 21st century, research focuses on the assessment of socio-spatial relationships as part of the analytic research framework to attain a better understanding of central questions like who, why, and how systems produce scale, and what is the aim behind a new scalar arrangement (Clarno, 2013; McCarthy, 2005). Nevertheless, the main critique here is that research on scale only concentrates on assessing state and capital (McCarthy, 2005). As an outcome, scholars like Brenner (2004), Gualini (2006), Jessop, Brenner, and Jones (2008), or Swyngedouw (1997) extended the scale concepts into the interface of human, environment and political discussion. Research within critical geography community tends to see scale as “the spatial, temporal, quantitative, or analytical dimensions used to measure, or rank, and study any phenomenon and levels as the units of analysis that are located at different positions on a scale” (Dore & Lebel, 2010, p. 62). Along these lines, Jessop et al. (2008) distinguish four dimensions of socio-spatial: (a) territory, (b) place, (c) scale, and (d) network (see also Table 1). The main reason of this new view on scale is, for example, to understand the question as to whether localism allows a broader engagement of local stakeholders in the policy discussion. Therefore, the interdependencies are clear between the different stakeholders over spatial-temporal developments (Cox & Mair, 1989; Massey, 1992; Sayre, 2005).

Table 1. Spatialities and the Production of Engagement in Flood Risk Management: Some Initial Questions


Practices of Engagement

Representatives of Engagement

Patterns of Technical/Geomorphological Contexts


How are citizens‘ rights formed throughout a territory? How are they challenged by flood hazard in their daily life?

How do stakeholder engagement shape the territorial reach of flood risk management activities? How far is uneven development contested?

How do technical/geomorphological aspects create opportunities or barriers to organize flood risk management? How do these aspects shape territorialisation?


How does place attachment influence stakeholder engagement?

How is stakeholder engagement in flood hazard in a place represented? Which forms of engagement are appropriate where?

How do the physical features of place shape flood risk management?


How does networks influence the practices of engagement? How are excluded social groups understood and viewed?

How do people recognize flood risk management? How do representations and knowledge affect engagement of people?

How do technical/geomorphological aspects enable/hinder sociospatial linkages?


How do stakeholder engagement make, re-make, or challenge constructions of scale?

How does the scalar framing of issues affect policy debates? How do scalar frameworks of governance shape understandings of appropriate avenues for policy transfer? Might scale be strategically re-constructed to affect movement?

How does the scalar structure of the state affect the availability of resources for flood risk management? How does unevenness affect stakeholder engagement in decision making?

Source: Adapted from “Mobility Among the Spatialities,” by B. Miller & J. Ponto (2016), Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(2), 266–273; and from “Sociospatial Understanding of Water Politics: Tracing the Multidimensionality 0f Water Reuse,” by R. Beveridge, T. Moss, & M. Naumann (2017), Water Alternatives, 10(1), 22–40.

Discourse on scale revolves around hierarchies, where social relations are organized alongside different constructions of scale based on network relationships and power geometry (Clarno, 2013). Specifically, one can characterize this as hierarchical nesting of responsibility and power (Brenner, 2004). Hierarchical or nested concept (global, national, regional, local relationships) is a key feature in scalar politics, but scale “should not be seen as a simple hierarchical concept” (Howitt, 1993, p. 36). Besides, Marston and Smith (2001) argue that scale “is not simply a ‘hierarchically ordered system’ placed over pre-existing space, however much that hierarchical ordering may itself be fluid. Rather the production of scale is integral to the production of space, all the way down” (Marston & Smith, 2001, p. 616). In this line, the engagement between scales is also defined and organized by the involved stakeholders primarily with concern as to who can change the current scalar structure and politic. The subject is complex, because within the academic debate, scholars introduced the concept of jumping between scales (Moore, 2008; Smith, 1992). Scale jumping focuses on the “breakout” of stakeholders in their current position in the socio-political system, encouraging shifts in boundaries of political engagement and influence (Smith, 1992). It is a synonym for the “ability of social groups and organisations to move from lower to higher levels” (MacKinnon, 2011, p. 24), mainly to guarantee individual interests and objectives, such as the specifics of a design of flood alleviation schemes (Collinge, 1999). For example, community engagement occurs through social networks at national or international levels, which in turn ensure interests and objectives. This describes the dynamic processes and changes in the social structure (Moore, 2008). A central outcome of jumping between the scales is the change in regulatory approaches, power structure, and administrative processes between local, regional, national, and global stakeholders (Swyngedouw, 1997). In making scale jumping successful, local movements must construct social networks with different stakeholders at different scale as this quotation emphasizes.

The networks of social networks are not just about linking up activists, but also about connecting with media outlets that can help to spread their messages. The success of failure of a protest event, and of a social movement more generally, depends crucially on whether they garner enough media attention to be brought before a national audience capable of putting pressure on policy makers or other actors.

(Jones, Jones, Woods, Whitehead, Dixon, & Hannah, 2015, pp. 130–131)

Therefore, a major question exists wherever the local stakeholders have the possibility to interact with national stakeholders to change the current power structure as an outcome of new scalar arrangements. Power is a central element in the ongoing policy debate and acts as a key attribute in the social relationship and structure (e.g., policy relationship) (Foucault, 1982). In this way, power is the possibility to modify the behavior of actors, stakeholders, and citizens within decision-making practices. Power can be understood as how it may influence individual interests and individual attitudes (Lukes, 2005). Rothschild (2002) found that power in the policy decision-making process lacks transparency. Indeed, socio-cultural context surrounds the concept of power, as in the case of individual habitus in engaging in current policy debate (Bourdieu, 1986). However, Sayer (2004) insisted that one must view power in the social structures of the stakeholders rather than exclusively in the stakeholder. One must then consider who decides in the policy processes, how power is used, who are excluded from the process and who is responsible in national, sub-national, or local level for decision making and implementation. In summary, the critical geographers purport that scale is composed of three elements:

  • Size (based on physical units, e.g., change in political boundaries),

  • Level (hierarchical relationship), and

  • Relation and interactions, which are socially and politically constructed (Howitt, 1993).

As a concept, however, scale plays a central role in the complex in social-ecological systems (SES). A group of authors introduced scale within the idea of de-politicization, especially authors with backgrounds in the New Institutional Economics or multi-level governance tradition (Guerrin, Bouleau, & Grelot, 2014; Meadowcroft, 2002; Moss, 2012). The idea of SES is to understand scalar arrangement with regard to spatial fit and misfit (Moss, 2012), then analyze and evaluate the institutional arrangements and interactions of stakeholders in the policy discourse (Berkes, 2010; Margerum, 2008). Therefore, a central question refers to the aspect of “inclusion, power-sharing, and joint decision-making” (Berkes, 2010, p. 492) along with “an interaction of equals, rather than a subject-object relationship” (p. 492). Gibson, Ostrom, and Ahn (2000) consider scale as “the spatial, temporal, quantitative, or analytical dimensions used to measure and study any phenomenon” (p. 218). For these authors, scale exists in absolute and relative aspects. Absolute scale is “the distance, time, or quantity measured on an objectively calibrated measurement device” (Gibson et al., p. 218). Conversely, relative scale is “a transformation of an absolute scale to one that describes the functional relationship of one object or process to another (e.g., the relative distance between two locations based on the time required by an organism to move between them)” (p. 218). The theoretical debate of scale involves temporal (management cycle) and spatial boundaries (administration, hydrology, ecosystem, and economy) (Cash et al., 2006; Dore & Lebel, 2010; see Figure 2). Boundaries interact between each other, so the “challenge arises out of the incorrect assumption that there is a single, correct, or best characterisation of the scale and level” (Cash et al., 2006, p. 4).

Scalar Politics in Flood Risk Management and Community EngagementClick to view larger

Figure 2. Schematic Illustrations of Different Scales and Levels that are Critical in Understanding and Responding to Human-Environment Interactions.

Source: “Scale and Cross-Scale Dynamics: Governance and Information in a Multilevel World,” by D. W. Cash et al. (2006), Ecology and Society, 11(2), 8.

The characteristics of the scalar re-arrangements focus on how we might combine political and hydrological boundaries, as well as the necessity of changing the level of activity and self-realization of the different stakeholders in the policy decision-making practices. This comprises new governance practices, regulations, and administration practices (Gualini, 2006; Moss & Newig, 2010; Perkmann, 2007). One key outcome of these new governance practices is the re-design of the responsibility of tasks and duties between national government and community (Berkes, 2010; Borrini-Feyerabend, 1996; Margerum, 2002, 2008). Consequently, this academic tradition excludes the question of socio-political development and impacts in the constructions and arrangements of scale. The outcome is an exclusion of the questions of power, democracy, social constructions, social justice, and equity.

Scale Arrangements and Community Engagement

Re-organizing scalar arrangements often allowed the empowerment and formation of a coalition of elites, excluding certain stakeholders (Swyngedouw, 1996). Understanding the consequences and potential changes of scalar re-organization demands a “need for closer attention to the inter-relationship between power and social networks in studies of water governance, with particular reference to both institutional dynamics and scalar constructions” (Norman, Bakker, & Cook, 2012, p. 3). In assessing individual capacity to build and hold networks across scalar constructions over changes in the scalar arrangements, this article focuses on changes in the legislations. If we can observe these developments, we should be able to see how such changes have affected history. To examine this idea, Table 2 provides a list of 11 major changes in the British flood risk management policy achievements.

Table 2. Evolving Scalar Arrangements in Flood Risk Management Since 1930 in England and Wales


Legislation/Key Policy Paper



The Main Modalities of Power Control by Central Government

Possibilities for Community Engagement


Land Drainage Act

Catchment Boards


Finance and technical standards

Highly localized organized; main stakeholders: farmers and landowning interests


River Boards Act

Internal Drainage Board (IDB)


Finance and technical standards

Highly localized organized; main stakeholders: farmers and landowning interests


Water Resources Act

River Authorities


Finance (benefit-costs test) and technical standards

Highly localized organized; main stakeholders: farmers and landowning interests


Water Act

Reducing number of river authorities


Finance (benefit-costs test) and technical standards

Highly localized organized; main stakeholders: farmers and landowning interests


Water Act

National River Authority (responsible for managing water resources, pollution control, flood control and land drainage)


Finance (benefit-costs test) and technical standards

Highly localized organized; main stakeholders: farmers and landowning interests as well as engagement of environmental NGOs


Environment Act

Environment Agency (replace National River Authority)


Finance, overall policy

Environmental NGOs


Priority Scoring

Environment Agency

Central-regional (focus on urban areas)

Finance, benefit-cost policy; overall policy

Environmental NGOs


Centralized spending

Environment Agency

Central (shift in the funding decision from local towards national; prioritization based on priority scoring)

Finance, benefit-cost policy; overall policy

Environmental NGOs


Payment of Outcomes

Environment Agency

Central (change of the prioritization system; holistic view of flood and coastal erosion risk management; including social justice aspects in the decision making practices; dominant national funding)

Finance, benefit-cost policy; overall policy

Environmental NGOs


Flood and Water Management Act

Responsibility-sharing between Environment Agency, Regional Flood and Coastal Committees and Lead Local Flood Authorities


Finance, benefit-cost policy; overall policy

Local authorities, insurance companies and environmental NGOs


Partnership Funding

New roles to local government authorities

Central-local (national and third-party funding)

Finance, benefit-cost policy; overall policy; rate support grant

Local authorities, citizens, insurance companies and environmental NGOs

NGO. Non-governmental organization. Source: Adapted from “Partnership Funding in Flood Risk Management: New Localism Debate and Policy in England,” by T. Thaler & S. Priest (2014), Area, 46(4), 418–425; and from “The Ebb and Flow of Power: British Flood Risk Management and the Politics of Scale,” by E. C. Penning-Rowsell & C. Johnson (2015), Geoforum, 62, 131–142.

The first organized arrangement in the British flood risk management policy was the Land Drainage Act, in 1930. The act was submitted after the published report of the Royal Commission on Land Drainage in 1927. The aim of the Land Drainage Act was based largely on previous experiences of large flood events in the 1920s and during World War I and was meant to guarantee food security within the country. The overall outcome was: (a) creation of 46 catchment river boards, (b) transfer of responsibility and power (of undertaken structural flood defenses on non-major rivers) to Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs), and (c) introduction of a government granted-aid system for main rivers (Penning-Rowsell & Johnson, 2015; Scrase & Sheate, 2005). The Land Drainage Act focused strongly on bolstering local decision making, whereas the national government’s primary responsibility was the funding of local projects. This move toward localism in policy opened the possibility for certain groups within the community to engage in the flood risk management policy; this was especially the case for farmers, the main winners of this change in strategy. Indeed, after World War I, farmers were generally highly subsidized by public administrations (O’Riordan, 1980). Although policy leaned heavily this way, it changed over the next century. This was particularly the case in aftermath of the 1963 Water Resources Act, wherein the flood risk management policy in England and Wales included a slow process toward centralized water policy in the country. Indeed, the number of catchment wide organizations were drastically reduced to collectivize within the Environment Agency, with the introduction of the 1989 Water Act.

The new environment agency will give us opportunities to proceed much faster and in a more holistic way than we have so far been able to do. The whole idea is that we look at the environment much more in the round. We must recognise that we cannot deal only with water, as air and land pollution must be seen together with water pollution. The work of Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and that of the local authorities in their waste management role needs to be brought together with what the National Rivers Authority has so excellently done in the past few years.

(Hansard, Commons, 18.4., 1995)

The Water Act of 1989 placed the Environment Agency at the center of the British flood risk management policy. Consequently, changes slowly transformed the decision process toward determining who received a protection scheme and who did not. At the beginning, the allocation of flood defenses were based on local interventions through social networks, though at the national level. However, since the 1960s and 1970s, the national government tightened the use of cost-benefit control in the allocation process (Penning-Rowsell & Johnson, 2015). Nevertheless, the local drainage organizations (IDBs) maintained their strong position in flood risk management policy through strong national lobbying efforts (O’Riordan, 1980; Parker & Sewell, 1988; Petit, 1999). Financial contributions remained drawn largely from the local level, showing strong influence in the British flood risk management policy. With the introduction of the new funding and prioritization policy in 1998, this changed. The Priority Scoring was only an extension of the already ongoing conflicts between the Thatcher/Major national and the Labour-organized local governments (see also quote below).

Thatcher's legacy to local governments was increased centralisation and the willingness of her successors to cap, limit, and control local democracy in England. This country is one of the most centralised of western democracies, which is an odd legacy for a politician who so prized individualism and freedom.

(Travers, 2013)

The period between 1998 and 2010 was characterized by highly centralized hierarchical top-down management, whereas local level (specifically non-state) stakeholders had little influence in the ongoing development of flood risk management policy. “The Environment Agency (EA) was given responsibility for allocating funds direct to local authorities for coastal protection schemes, meaning the EA could objectively appraise, prioritise and allocate funds to flood and coastal erosion risk management activity across England in line with where greatest benefit could be achieved with the funding available” (Defra, 2010, p. 9). Similar developments can be observed in the funding structure. The contribution policy towards funding of flood alleviation schemes changed, from a local system of spending toward a highly centralized spending regime (e.g., national government), where the national government in London began dictating flood risk management policies nationwide (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3. National and Local Flood Defense Funding in England and Wales, 1996–2011.

Source: Author-created data based on “Written Answers: 24 February 2009,” House of Commons (2009).

The most recent development in the flood risk management funding policy in England and Wales was the introduction of the Partnership Funding scheme in April 2011 (Thaler & Levin-Keitel, 2016; Thaler & Priest, 2014). This was driven by multiple developments to “move-back” to a stronger, locally based flood risk management policy. For example, government-driven documents, such as the EA study Investing for the Future, published in 2009 (EA, 2009), or the recommendations from the Pitt Review (Pitt, 2008), point to the government becoming more receptive to more locally oriented flood risk management politics to address challenges in future funding. The EA study documented the need for an increase of the annual budget of around £20 million, exclusive of the annual rate of inflation (EA, 2009). Another (second) driver was the spending cuts of the national government one might review in the Government Spending Review (October 2010). One result was that the central government had to reduce the public national funding (Figure 4). The spending review included a reduction of new flood alleviation schemes, from £354 million (2010–2011) to £259 million (constant over the next spending review period), as well as for maintained work, emergency response, hazard and risk mapping and modeling, from £275 million (2010–2011) to £226 million (2014–2015). The consequences were a reduction of new flood alleviation schemes, as well as struggles to satisfy all maintained work on current flood alleviation schemes.

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Figure 4. National Flood and Coastal Risk Management Grant-in-Aid Funding: 2007–2008 to 2014–2015.

Source: Author-Created Data Based on “Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee. Managing Flood Risk: Third Report of Session 2013–14,” House of Commons (2013), p. 8.

The U.K. central government has recognized the need for additional financial contributions from third parties (i.e., non-state stakeholders, EU, or county councils). This allows the possibility for more flood defense schemes and for meeting 100% of necessary funding. Despite this, there are no substantial differences between the previous funding regime and the new partnership funding scheme. Nevertheless, Partnership Funding encouraged a change in governance structure and the associated interaction. Discussion in the early 21st century surrounding British flood policy includes more and different stakeholders involved in the decision-making process.

Community Engagement: Is It Good or Bad?

The Cockermouth Partnership Funding scheme in the United Kingdom has a high level of self-management and initiation on the part of local stakeholders, such as businesses and residents. The engaged local community had the necessary resources in the interaction with the national government to realize the flood defense scheme in the town. Local grassroots organization has been strongly based on the interest and frustration of residents after recent flood events. Its first role was to create a voice through which to lobby for a local flood defense scheme to protect residents’ properties. The Partnership has taken over this lobbying role from local politicians and, as a consequence, the group is very homogenous. The members are mainly white, well-educated, middle-class professionals with expertise, skills, and knowledge in planning and law. Moreover, the engaged community uses a strong local network to access and unite various local political stakeholders in the ongoing flood risk policy discussion; they argue and lobby in an effective way to further engage the surrounding community (Thaler & Levin-Keitel, 2016; Thaler & Priest, 2014). Members of grassroots organizations have shown a profound knowledge about the topic, as well as the social and cultural capital and the right habitus (Bourdieu, 1986). They recognized the influence and potential power they had, as well as their need to become involved in the decision process in order to realize the defense scheme. The network’s relationship with Members of Parliament and the County Council played an important role. Despite this new coalition, the new Environment Agency had to change their ideology, shifting away from engineering (that is, designing and building flood defense schemes) to more project management tasks. Above all, the Environment Agency had to communicate to the local stakeholders and consider their views, interests, and aims.

Despite the positive effect of community engagement, the Partnership Funding scheme includes also various challenges and negative developments. Another example is the community Morpeth, in the United Kingdom. In the case of Morpeth, no private stakeholders were integrated in the funding scheme at all. The Northumberland County Council made the political decision not to ask for any other stakeholders to contribute to the scheme. The local community group has been shown as a strong lobbying and pressure group. There has been a strong interplay between the local community and the public administration, harnessing high levels of contributions from government. The results of this political decision highlighted that further projects in other local authorities across the county can no longer be funded completely by Northumberland County Council. Partnership Funding encouraged a shift in flood risk management away from solely public trust toward a club or even private good (Meijerink & Dicke, 2008) approach. Areas needing funding from third parties need well-established social and cultural networks to realize their flood defense schemes. Furthermore, the decision processes surrounding formulating flood defense schemes are based more on political will, relationships, and interests than on an objective decision process. Unfortunately, community engagement often shows limited influence and originality in the outcome, often based on the lack of resources at the local level and the asymmetrical participation of stakeholders (Norman & Bakker, 2009). One clear issue is that of the democratic mandate (legitimacy) in flood risk management, especially with the engagement of a non-elected local grassroots organization in the policy process. This has resulted in a step backwards in the decision-making process regarding the selection of the flood defense schemes, away from technocratic decision-process practices (introduced under the Priority Scoring scheme) to charity hazard decision-process practices. A second outcome can be observed in uneven development in the country, owing to unequal capacities at the local level (Nicholls, 2009; Peck & Tickell, 2012). Therefore, an organization with “correct” habitus and necessary resources (social capacities) can influence the planning process, where stakeholders are qualified to interact with externals at different scales. This often correlates with the size of the municipality. Smaller municipalities are limited in the degree of engagement in flood risk management based on the lack of capacity in the community, as Consoer and Milman (2017) showed in their article for the federal system in the United States. Nevertheless, various examples across the world clearly show that communities are often less willing to request more resources, power, and responsibility to interact in flood risk management. For this is the expectation—that flood risk management is exclusively the responsibility of national governments. The resulting change of scalar arrangements would only enforce new boundaries without further democratic processes and lack of local institutions (Allen & Cochrane, 2007; Fatti & Patel, 2013). Overall, “community based disaster risk reduction initiatives always depend on such established community owned institutions” (Surjan & Shaw, 2009, p. 430), as in the Advance Locality Management (ALM) example in Mumbai, India. The movements were organized voluntarily by individuals, but the members were able to link their activities to their neighborhood. Community engagement continues to improve local well being based on new scalar construction (Surjan & Shaw). However, local elites have various advantages over other social groups, but also the possibilities afforded by resources, mobility, and access for taking action on the jurisdictional level and administrative actions (Perreault, 2003). Similar developments can be found in other examples across the world, such as implementation of watershed management plans in Austria (Thaler, 2016; Thaler, Priest, & Fuchs, 2016); whereas high-income communities were able to ensure their interests and needs in flood risk management.

The outcome can be a shift from democratically elected representatives toward non-state stakeholders. This has the potential of environmental racism politics as a result (Elliott & Pais, 2006), where low-income and minority communities, which lack social and cultural capital and capacity, as well as economic power, are excluded from the policy process and their fair share of flood protection.


Researchers see community engagement as a social process, wherein the local community works together to find a collective solution for a certain problem, such as local flood risk management solutions (Green & Penning-Rowsell, 2010). However, community engagement is often introduced by political parties and/or leaders, or by the national government. Commonly, the best way to do this is through trust building and legitimacy between local stakeholders and public administration, especially bureaucrats at higher levels. Nevertheless, scholars often foresee the inflexibility of public administration as a main hindrance to a successful collaboration (Tseng & Penning-Rowsell, 2012). Additional problems relate to the lack of institutional support about how to organize and deal with a community engagement process, lack of communication, lack of information sharing, and especially lack of resources, in particular in respect to large participation processes. Scalar re-arrangements force changes in the social structure and interaction with multiple stakeholders in flood risk management. Usually, new scalar constructions empower local stakeholders to take action in the decision process. Among the key problems that community engagement in flood risk management faces, the most critical is the different interests and views of each stakeholder in the policy process. Community engagement is essential for the successful implementation of certain policy strategies. However, this depends strongly on the local interests and available resources to engage in the process. Therefore, a participatory approach to flood risk management is only a success story for middle-class communities, and not for deprived communities, which are usually most vulnerable.


The opportunity to submit this article to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Natural Hazard Science is gratefully acknowledged. The research was funded by the JPI-Climate project TRANS-ADAPT funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research, and Economy (BMWFW), the French National Research Agency (ANR), the Ireland Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and by the Austrian Climate and Energy Fund project BottomUp:Floods (project number KR15AC8K12462).

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