Rivers are changing all the time, and it affects their capacity to contain floods

Houses alongside the Saigon river in Vietnam. Tony La Hoang/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

This guest post was written by: Louise Slater, University of Oxford; Abdou Khouakhi, Loughborough University, and Robert Wilby, Loughborough University.

The rainfall that has inundated the North of England is the latest in a long line of flood events that are becoming the country’s new normal. Indeed, across the world, flooding is expected to become more frequent and more extreme as the planet heats up.

Building robust flood defences and modelling vulnerable areas is crucial if we are to avoid loss of life and livelihoods from these devastating weather events. But our new research reveals that the capacity of rivers to keep water flowing within their banks can change quickly – and in failing to acknowledge this, some flood models and defences may be under-equipped to deal with the consequences when they do.

Many assume that flooding is due to heavy rainfall. This is true, but only part of the explanation. Floods also occur when the amount of water running off the land exceeds the capacity of rivers to carry that flow – as was the case when the River Don breached flood defences in the Sheffield area recently. So, floods are partly caused by the amount of rain falling, partly by the moisture that is already in the ground, and partly by the capacity of rivers to contain water within their channels.

This means that if the capacities of river channels change, then two identical rainfall events falling on similarly wet ground can cause flooding of very different severity.

Most rivers are forever changing. They are shaped by the sediments and water they carry. Humans have modified most of the world’s rivers in some way. In some cases this is through direct influence, such as dam construction or river engineering. Other influences are indirect – building on nearby land reduces the capacity of ground to absorb water, agriculture draws water from rivers, and deforestation leaves more water to flow elsewhere.

After the River Don burst its banks in places, multiple roads in urban centres such as Rotherham flooded. DnG Photography/Shutterstock

Rivers respond to changes in climate as well. During drier periods, less water flows through river systems. This means that there is often less energy to move the sediments at their beds, so riverbed levels may progressively rise, decreasing the capacity of the river. Abundant plant growth within the channel can also reduce a river channel’s capacity by slowing the flow.

But it is not always easy to predict how rivers will change. Extreme shifts in channel shape and capacity can occur very rapidly. After a recent flash flood in Spain, one river rose almost a metre as huge volumes of sediment from upstream were displaced and dumped further along. In tropical river systems, which tend to carry more sediment than temperate rivers, these changes can be several metres.

Uncertain risk

Unfortunately, such changes are typically ignored by flood engineers and modellers, who generally treat the channel as a fixed feature. If rivers actually change their capacity in space and time, then estimates of flood probability may be incorrect, putting people and property at risk.

Motivated by these concerns, we investigated the pace at which channel changes occur, and to what extent these alterations might be driven by climate. We began with a simple conceptual model: climate controls rainfall, rainfall affects river flow, and river flow shapes channel capacity.

Direct observations of this link were lacking in river systems over short timescales. So, we took 10,000 measurements of the capacity of 67 rivers in the US, covering a period of nearly 70 years. We also gathered rainfall and river flow data, to assess how climatic changes affected the capacity of the rivers.

We discovered that temporary shifts in river capacity, lasting years to decades, were far more frequent than had previously been assumed. Overall, river capacity tends to increase during periods that are wetter than average due to greater erosion of river channels, and decrease in drier periods.

The flood-prone Ganges river is a lifeline to millions who live along its course. Joachim Bago/ Shutterstock

We also found that multi-year climate cycles that affect regional precipitation patterns – such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation – can cause channel capacity to expand and contract too, perhaps on a global scale. Armed with this knowledge, we may eventually be able to predict how the capacity of rivers changes, and hence better understand flood risk.

In temperate regions such as the UK, where rivers tend to be vegetated, heavily engineered and relatively stable, delicate changes in channel capacity are hard to detect and unlikely to be life threatening. However, in river systems that carry high volumes of sediment, or in parts of the world where rainfall varies considerably during the year, sudden reductions in river capacity may dramatically increase flood risk for nearby settlements. For example, the Ganges-Brahmaputra river in India and Bangladesh falls under this category. Its capacity is already changing, and its floodplains are some of most densely populated in the world.

Unfortunately, we still have very poor understanding of the nature and causes of channel capacity changes in most regions – and it is the most at-risk places that tend to have the least data. To better understand what’s happening, we need to use satellite imagery to monitor how fast rivers are responding to changes in the climate. What we can’t yet do though is monitor river adjustment in real time. Developing technologies that do this would greatly improve our understanding of how changes in river shape and capacity affect flood risk across the world.

Until this information becomes apparent, flood models and defence structures should build this uncertain risk into their designs. Doing so could make all the difference for those living in vulnerable areas.


Louise Slater, Associate Professor in Physical Geography, University of Oxford; Abdou Khouakhi, Research Associate, Climate and Weather Data Analysis, Loughborough University, and Robert Wilby, Professor of Hydroclimatic Modelling, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading from our blog:

Future proofing Scotland’s road network

How can we ensure Scotland’s roads are fit for the future? That was the challenging question facing a panel of experts at this year’s Traffex Scotland exhibition. The exhibition – held for the first time at the SEC in Glasgow – attracted a large number of contractors, consultants, manufacturers and suppliers involved in the design, management and maintenance of Scotland’s roads and bridges.

Future-proofing the roads network was one of several seminars at the exhibition covering highway maintenance and development. The speakers on the panel were: Eddie Ross and Andy Thomson from BEAR Scotland (which maintains Scotland’s roads), Mark Arndt from Amey (a leading supplier of consulting and infrastructure support services both in the UK and internationally) and Evan Ferguson from Scotland Transerv (which manages and maintains more than 600 kilometres of trunk road and motorway network across South West Scotland).

The panel highlighted the challenges facing road maintenance engineers in assessing the current state of Scotland’s road network, and agreed that one of the key factors driving successful future development was to gain an understanding of the travel habits of the future. Gathering and sharing data will form the backbone of this understanding, enabling traffic managers to model, monitor and control the effects of travel as well as reducing congestion.

But the basics of road maintenance will always apply. Scotland has a diverse road network, and while trunk roads in the north of the country are often single carriage, requiring considerable improvements, elsewhere the challenges relate to capacity. Maintaining those roads, developing them for the future and ensuring minimum disruption to travellers and the economy are all exercising the minds of traffic engineers.

The climate and the weather are also important drivers of change. The panel wholeheartedly agreed that water is the road engineer’s enemy, and the increasingly wet weather experienced by Scotland can often lead to disruption for travellers.

The Scottish Government’s recent consultation on its National Transport Strategy highlighted extreme weather events, such as 2018’s “Beast from the East”, which cost the UK economy at least £1 billion per day as gridlocked roads, along with no trains and no buses meant many workers were unable to access employment.

The Traffex panel welcomed the National Transport Strategy as a good first step in future-proofing Scotland’s roads network. It highlights the need to enhance the resilience of the transport network, to enable new transport projects and policies to deal effectively with the predicted changes in climate and to adapt existing networks to allow for increased rainfall and extreme temperatures.

The panel also discussed some of the technological advances that are set to revolutionise travel patterns in the coming years. One notable development is the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

AVs need roads without impediments, and therefore need clear and well-maintained road surfaces, as well as road markings that are kept at high standards. At the same time, the ways in which AVs use roads may be different from conventional traffic, and this will have significant effects on the resilience of road surfaces.

Electric vehicles also herald profound changes to our roads, with implications for road pricing and infrastructure.

With only 20 minutes to cover the future of Scotland’s roads, the panel had their work cut out. But they ended, as they began, by stressing the need to understand the travel habits of the future. There was widespread agreement that the travelling public will be open to innovations such as AVs and electric vehicles, but will also expect improvements in connectivity options, including cycling and public transport.

Our road engineers will have a vital role to play in maintaining the roads network, while being flexible and open to new developments to keep Scotland moving.


Idox Transport delivers bespoke, cost-effective solutions to support strategic and localised transport control. Innovative services and solutions enable complete management across all forms of transport, supporting the safe and efficient movement of people and vehicles – whatever the end goal. To find out more, please contact the Transport team at transport@idoxgroup.com

Lessons from Norway: Deposit Return Scheme

by Scott Faulds

Last year, following the screening of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, the issue of single-use plastic and its effect on the ecosystem rose to the forefront of the public’s mind. Research conducted by Waitrose & Partners found that 88% of people who watched Blue Planet have now changed the way they use plastics, with 60% of viewers now likely to use a refillable water bottle. The “blue planet effect” has even influenced the work of various legislatures, with the introduction of new laws designed to ban single-use plastic in the Scottish Government, UK Government and European Commission. Additionally, both the Scottish and UK Governments have been looking into ways to reduce use of single-use plastics through the introduction of what is known as a deposit return scheme (DRS).

What is a deposit return scheme?

The basis of a DRS is relatively simple: when you purchase a drink in a single-use container you pay a nominal fee as a deposit. On returning the container you receive your deposit back. The Scottish Government have recently announced that they have set the deposit for their scheme at 20p. DRSs have been successfully operating across the world for several years and are particularly common in the Nordic countries, where container return rates are between 88% to 96%. However, whilst the basis of the DRS is often the same, each country has a different set of operating criteria that determines which single-use containers can participate in the scheme, the level of deposit and the places where people can return their single-use containers.

The Norwegian Model

The most effective DRS in the world can be found in Norway, colloquially known as “panting”, which has been in operation since the early 2000s. 97% of all plastic drink bottles are returned and less than 1% of all plastic bottles sold in Norway end up in the environment. Most impressively, it is estimated that 92% of all plastic bottles returned are recycled back into plastic bottles, with the chief executive of Infinitum (the private, not-for-profit, operator of the DRS owned by retailers and producers) estimating that some bottles have already been recycled more than fifty times.

Within the Norwegian model, the legislation underpinning the scheme is a single page, with the industry owned body Infinitum entrusted to decide how best to operate the DRS. Infinitum is incentivized to make the scheme as efficient as possible due to an environmental tax placed on all producers of plastic bottles, which is lifted if 95% of all single-use containers are returned.

The Norwegian scheme accepts all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and aluminium containers if packaging has been designed in line with Infinitum’s guidelines, which ensures that all containers entering the scheme are able to be easily recycled. These guidelines are fundamental to ensure the circular nature of the scheme. For example, it is critical that labels attached to bottles are easily removed without leaving any residue which could inhibit their ability to be recycled.  The level of deposit charged varies, with all aluminium and small PET containers set at 2kr (17p) and large (500ml+) PET containers at 3kr (26p). All retailers that sell beverages eligible for the scheme are required to act as a collection point, either via reverse vending machines or as a manual collection point. Additionally, it is also possible for schools/charities to act as manual collection points, which enables them to collect additional revenue. Reverse vending machines also feature an option for the deposit to be donated to the Norwegian Red Cross.

In short, the design of the Norwegian DRS has largely been left in the hands of the industry itself, who are incentivised to ensure it operates effectively in order to receive a tax reduction. This has enabled the creation of a truly circular system where everything from the design of the packaging itself to how containers are collected has been meticulously planned. The statistics speak for themselves:  with 97% of all plastic drink containers returned and 92% of these containers then re-purposed into new containers, it is fair to say that Norway’s DRS is world leading.

Lessons to Learn

With both the Scottish and UK governments at various stages in their development of a DRS, there are some lessons to be learned from the successful scheme operated in Norway.

Both governments could look at how best to ensure industry engagement when implementing their DRSs. Encouraging citizens to recycle more is unquestionably a good thing for a responsible government to do. However, containers returned can only be recycled if industry is engaged and able to make appropriate changes to their containers to ensure they are as recyclable as possible when returned.

Additionally, it will be important to ensure that there is enough infrastructure in place to allow people to return their single-use containers. This will be of particular significance to more rural areas of the country. Both governments could consider how Norway dealt with this issue, where any business which sells items eligible for the DRS must also act as a collection point. Furthermore, both governments could consider if it is viable to enable schools and charities to act as manual collection points, allowing citizens to donate their deposit to worthy causes. This will provide citizens with options in how they wish to make use of their deposit whilst also providing additional collection infrastructure.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, it is evident that Norway operates the most effective DRS in the world, with over 95% of all plastic and aluminium containers recycled via the scheme. Both the Scottish and UK governments would be wise to look at what lessons can be learned from Norway when designing DRSs which will help to tackle the climate emergency. As shown by the experience of Norway, the most effective DRSs are more than just recycling, they are entire system changes.


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Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on recycling and climate change:

Idox congratulates the winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2019

Working across professional boundaries was a key theme among the winners of the 2019 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for Research Excellence, which were announced this week. The awards were presented at the opening ceremony of the UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference at the University of Liverpool.

Idox is proud to have supported the awards since 2015, and this year we again sponsored three of the five awards – the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, the Consultancy Award, and the Student Award.

The judging panel of 28 experienced academics and leading voices from the public and private sector, considered submissions from across the UK and around the world, and the winning entries reflected this diversity.

Entries were on a range of topics, including climate change, spatial justice, physical and mental health, rural development, neighbourhood planning and community engagement.

Award winning research from around the world

RTPI President Ian Tant, who presented the awards, commented that: “High quality and impactful research forms a vital basis for planning practice. This year’s Research Awards have again shone a light on fantastic planning research from around the world.”

Henk Heerink, Director of Idox Content, said: “It was inspiring to see the research showcased in this year’s award applications. At Idox, we have a close relationship with the research community via RESEARCHconnect, our end-to-end solution which supports researchers and institutions to find funding or research partners.”

“It is again a pleasure to see these awards bestowed on researchers who are leading the way in showing how planning research can help shape the world we live in.”

Supporting communities in neighbourhood planning

The Sir Peter Hall Award was awarded to Gavin Parker, Kat Salter and Matthew Wargent (University of Reading – Real Estate & Planning, Henley Business School) for their book and supporting website designed to help communities to engage with community-led planning. This work is the result of extensive research in neighbourhood planning and community involvement in planning led in the past five years by the Neighbourhood Planning academic research hub at Reading University.

The judges found that the project had succeeded in “engaging a wider audience, mobilising an impressive research output and communicating it in an innovative and clear way.”

Planning for healthier outcomes

All four shortlisted entries for the Consultancy award were for research undertaken by Lichfields in different parts of the UK. The ultimate winner was Myles Smith, for their annual review of Local Plan progress under the NPPF 2012. The detailed review of Inspectors’ reports and the qualitative application of planning judgements within them has set the standard for future research in this area.

The judges found the research “eminently relevant for planning practice and research and extremely well-documented.”

Cross-cutting impactful research

The Academic Award went to Dr Chinmoy Sarkar, Prof Chris Webster (University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Architecture, Department of Urban Planning and Design) and Prof John Gallacher (Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) for their study ‘Residential greenness and prevalence of major depressive disorders: A cross-sectional, observational, associational study of 94,879 adult UK Biobank participants’.

The Early Career Award went to Dr Guibo Sun for his work with Prof Chris Webster and Xiaohu Zhang (University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Architecture, Department of Urban Planning and Design): ‘Connecting the city: A three-dimensional pedestrian network of Hong Kong’.

The Student Award went to Richard Lundy (Cardiff University, School of Geography and Planning) for his Masters dissertation: ‘Incompatible Imagery: The conflict between heritage and development at Liverpool Waters’.

For the first time, two Practitioner Research Awards were also made. RTPI members who are practising planners were invited to submit research proposals and the winners received £5,000 of research funding.


The full list of winners and shortlisted finalists for the 2019 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are available here.

We interviewed the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.

Plugging into the future: can electric vehicles clear the air?

“Electric Car2Go”by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Science tells us that improvements to our air quality bring real health benefits – fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature births, less cancer, dementia and asthma, and lower incidences of premature deaths.

Better health because of cleaner air has been a strong driving force behind efforts by local and national government to keep highly polluting vehicles away from city centres, where air quality can be especially poor.

Earlier this year, we blogged about initiatives to improve the air quality of cities by banning the most polluting vehicles that emit dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and poisonous particulate matter.

Driving out diesel

There have also been important policy announcements to underline how seriously national and local authorities are taking the issue of air pollution. In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, with all fuel-powered vehicles to be banned from the roads entirely by 2050. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 – eight years ahead of the proposed deadline set out by the London government. These moves replicate measures introduced by France and cities such as Amsterdam, and Hamburg.

Electric currents

As diesel and petrol cars are phased out, alternatives, such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are moving in. These have a lower environmental impact and could also help the UK to meet its target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

At present, electric-powered vehicles make up a small part of the UK car market – just 0.9% of new cars are electric. But sales of electric cars have been rising – in June 2019 there was a 61.7% increase in battery electric vehicles registered in the UK, and in July electric car sales continued to accelerate (meanwhile, diesel registrations fell for the 28th consecutive month). This trend is set to continue as car manufacturers in the UK and overseas invest more in electric vehicle production.

Diesel and petrol cars could be phased out much more quickly if more drivers could be persuaded to go electric. But many are still reluctant to make the switch due to concerns about the distances that electric cars can travel between charges (the electric Volkswagen Golf, for example, needs recharging every 120 miles) and the availability of a robust charging infrastructure. But for most drivers, the leap in costs of switching to electric has proved the major stumbling block.

In the UK, the government has cut subsidies and grants for some hybrid and electric vehicles, leading to a slump in hybrid sales. By contrast, Norway’s government is leaving no doubt that they want drivers to turn away from diesel and petrol cars. The Norwegian government has backed up its ambitious goal to stop selling new gas and diesel passenger cars and vans by 2025 (15 years ahead of the UK government’s target) with incentives to go electric. These include tax breaks for electric cars, access for electric vehicles to fast-track bus lanes, plus discounts on parking and charging. Drivers are getting the message: in April 2019, almost 59% of all cars sold in Norway were electric.

Other countries are also joining the electric vehicle bandwagon, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and the world leader in electric mobility, China.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the House of Commons Business Select Committee said the UK government’s plans to ban diesel and petrol emitting vehicles were “vague and unambitious”. The committee was also critical of the subsidy cuts and the lack of charging points.

Putting the brakes on: the downside of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles have the potential to bring significant benefits to the UK economy, and many believe that Britain could become a world leader in electric car production. But this would require large-scale lithium-ion battery cell plants facilities. There are currently no plans for these in the UK, while China and Germany are setting the pace on battery production.

Although electric vehicles have been heralded as an environmental good news story, manufacturing their batteries requires raw materials such as cobalt, the mining of which has considerable environmental and human costs. At the same time, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is largely generated from fossil fuels. And, just like petrol and diesel vehicles, electric cars produce large amounts of pollution from brake and tyre dust.

Green for go?

Despite the drawbacks, electric vehicles are on the move. Manufacturers are launching new ranges to meet increasing demand and to comply with EU rules on carbon dioxide emissions limits. The International Energy Agency predicts there will be 125 million electric vehicles in use worldwide by 2030.

In Britain, the charging infrastructure is already growing, and  set to improve, further. The UK government is also proposing that all new-build homes should be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles. The Scottish Government has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road, and the city of Dundee is already making progress on zero-carbon transport. Meanwhile, in London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.

But, as a July 2019 report from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) warns, electric vehicles will not address the problems of congestion, urban sprawl and inactive lifestyles. The authors recommend that governments should be doing more to discourage people from driving, and shifting the focus of travel to more sustainable modes, such as walking and cycling.

Electric cars may help clear the air and bring subsequent health benefits. But they won’t drive away all of the challenges facing our motor-centric cities.


If you’d like to read more on this subject, take a look at our previous blog posts…

A rising tide: the growing importance of the blue economy

Wild Surf

There has been much focus on the green economy in recent times as the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C in 2018, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out an important part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st Century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why the blue economy is so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.


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Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference 2019 open for bookings

We’re pleased to announce that 2019’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is returning to Edinburgh on Thursday 19 September, and the programme has now been released.

This flagship conference always attracts a knowledgeable audience from the planning and legal professions, with a focus on quality discussion and debate.

The focus this year is on two main themes: the approach to housing, land value and infrastructure delivery, and the impact of the community empowerment agenda in Scotland. With the Planning (Scotland) Act finally having received Royal Assent on 25 July, we’ll also be looking at what to expect next, including a review of the National Planning Framework. And as usual, there will also be the popular sessions on recent case law.

Conference programme

The programme features a wide range of speakers, bringing perspectives from the private sector, local government planning, academia and central government to bear on the issues. The chair for this year will be James Findlay QC.

The conference is an excellent opportunity for solicitors and planners to refresh their knowledge of recent changes in planning and environmental law, as well as providing time for quality networking.

Confirmed speakers and panel members this year include:

  • Mark Lazarowicz, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Shona Glenn, Head of Policy & Research, Scottish Land Commission
  • Dr Mark Robertson, Managing Partner, Ryden
  • Nicola Woodward, Senior Director, Lichfields
  • Fraser Carlin, Head of Housing & Planning, Renfrewshire Council
  • Pauline Mills, Land & Planning Director, Taylor Wimpey
  • Tammy Swift-Adams, Director of Planning, Homes for Scotland
  • Nick Wright, Nick Wright Planning
  • Pippa Robertson, Aurora Planning
  • Dr Calum Macleod,Policy Director, Community Land Scotland
  • Neale McIlvanney, Strategic Planning Manager, North Ayrshire Council
  • Stefano Smith, Director, Stefano Smith Planning and former Convenor, RTPI Scotland
  • Pam Ewen, Chief Officer – Planning, Fife Council and former Convenor, RTPI Scotland
  • Jacqueline Cook, Head of Planning, Davidson Chalmers

If you’re interested in planning or environmental law in Scotland then there’s no doubt that SPEL 2019 is an unmissable conference.


The 2019 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on 19 September at the COSLA Conference Centre, Edinburgh.

The conference programme and booking form are available here.

The conference is supported by Terra Firma Chambers.

How a smart canal and a sponge city could regenerate North Glasgow

by Scott Faulds

In the late 18th century, following years of delays and complications, the Forth and Clyde Canal was finally completed and opened for use. In the pre-industrial era, the canal was an essential transport corridor, which allowed goods to be moved from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde and even allowed passengers to travel from Falkirk to Edinburgh in just under four hours!

However, advancements in technology and the expansion of rail travel led to a movement away from canals and by 1962 the Forth and Clyde Canal had become derelict. The closure of canal networks across the UK was devastating to the communities that served them, such as North Glasgow, as they were vital to ensuring continued economic and social prosperity.

250 years on from the opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal – thanks to capital funding from the Glasgow City Region City Deal, the European Regional Development Fund via the Green Infrastructure Fund and Scotland’s 8th City: the Smart City –  the canal is about receive a 21st century ‘smart’ upgrade that supports the regeneration of North Glasgow.

How does it work?

The smart canal is one component of a project known as the North Glasgow Integrated Water Management System (NGIWMS); the other element is the implementation of what is known as a ‘sponge city’ approach.

According to the World Future Council, a sponge city is one where rainwater is able to be absorbed into the ground and managed as opposed to the usual impermeable systems utilised in cities today. As a result, sponge cities are abundant in open green space, green roofs, sustainable urban drainage ponds and any other measure which facilitates the passive absorption of water.

The smart canal utilises a variety of sensors which measure water levels, quality, flow and temperature. All the data produced by the smart canal is then processed and helps experts at Scottish Canals and Scottish Water decide what actions are needed to mitigate flooding. For example, if the sensors detect that canal water levels are high and heavy rain is expected soon, water can be proactively transferred from the canal into nearby watercourses, in advance of the rainfall, to create space to absorb the rainfall.

Scottish Canals state that the NGIWMS will allow for the equivalent of 22 Olympic swimming pools (55,000m³) worth of additional water storage capacity and that this capacity will be created at a substantially lower cost than traditional methods of onsite drainage.  Therefore, the smart canal and sponge city work in tandem to defend the local community from the threats faced by climate change and flooding, giving North Glasgow a modern water management system.

How can this regenerate North Glasgow?

The Centre of Expertise for Waters states that the smart canal will provide a variety of regenerative benefits to North Glasgow, from economic growth to environmental improvement. You may be asking yourself, how can a 250-year-old canal and a concept likened to a sponge facilitate such large-scale regeneration? Well, simply put, the current drainage system in North Glasgow is not fit for purpose and has rendered substantial amounts of land unusable.  The smart canal and sponge city approach will provide North Glasgow with a fully functioning drainage system which is able to dynamically respond to an ever-changing climate, thus, freeing up previously unusable land to developers.

Glasgow City Council estimates that 110 hectares – that’s enough land to cover Glasgow Green twice – will be unlocked for investment, development and regeneration. Areas around the smart canal, such as Sighthill, are already seeing regeneration of their community, through the building of over 150 affordable homes, new schools, new community centres and installation of new green space. Additionally, the building of new office space is expected to bring new jobs to North Glasgow, which is both important for local people and to attract new residents. Glasgow City Council are determined that the canal and urban drainage ponds will become go-to destinations, in the image of the regenerated canals of Birmingham, surrounded by pubs, restaurants and other leisure developments. Attracting tourists and locals to the area will provide a big boost to the local economy and help spur on further regeneration efforts. In short, the provision of a modern and effective drainage system will allow North Glasgow to experience a great deal of urban regeneration.

Final thoughts

The regeneration of North Glasgow, through the smart canal and sponge city concept, is a remarkable example of how to redevelop a specific area without gentrifying an entire community. In recent years, various regeneration projects have been criticised for bulldozing over local communities and triggering a soar in property prices, rendering the area unlivable for existing residents. The use of North Glasgow’s existing infrastructure, the Forth and Clyde Canal, as a pillar of regeneration efforts pays homage to the community’s past and spreads the benefits of its 21st century upgrade across the community.

Ensuring that the regeneration of North Glasgow benefits residents is vital, as is ensuring that all new developments are sustainable and ready to face the challenges of the future. The creation of an effective and dynamic water drainage system will ensure that North Glasgow is prepared for future challenges raised by climate change. The installation of large swathes of green space to help realise the sponge city, will also capture carbon, and help Glasgow reach its target to be the first carbon neutral city in the UK.

The smart canal is the first of its kind and, if successful, could see North Glasgow lead the way in sustainable regeneration which could be deployed worldwide. In short, a sponge city and a smart canal can lead to a great deal of good for North Glasgow and beyond.


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Ugly veg: supermarkets aren’t the biggest food wasters – you are

Image via The Conversation, Amophoto_au/Shutterstock

This guest blog was written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

“Ugly” or “wonky” veg were blamed for up to 40% of wasted fruit and vegetables in 2013, as produce was discarded for failing to meet retailer appearance standards. About 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted worldwide every year and, of this, fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food type. But just how much of that is due to “ugly veg” being tossed by farms and supermarkets? The biggest culprit for food waste may be closer to home than we’d like to admit.

“Ugliness” is just one reason among many for why food is wasted at some point from farm to fork – there’s also overproduction, improper storage and disease. But the problem of “wonky veg” caught the public’s attention.

A report published in 2017 suggested that sales of “wonky veg” have risen in recent years as retailers have acknowledged the problem with wasting edible food, but it’s estimated that up to 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are still wasted on cosmetic grounds.

Morrisons reported that consumers had begun to buy more misshapen food, whereas Sainsbury’s and Tesco both report including “wonky veg” in their recipe boxes, juices, smoothies and soups.

Not all ugly veg is wasted at the retail point of the supply chain however. WRAP, a charity who have been working with governments on food waste since 2000, have investigated food waste on farms and their initial findings suggest a major cause of fruit waste is due to produce failing aesthetic standards. For example, strawberries are often discarded if they’re the wrong size for supermarkets.

The National Farmers Union also reported in 2014 that around 20% of Gala apples were being wasted prior to leaving the farm gate as they weren’t at least 50% red in colour.

Home is where the waste is

Attitudes seem to be changing on “ugly veg” at least. Morissons ran a campaign to promote its “ugly veg” produce aisle, and other supermarkets are stocking similar items. Despite this, household waste Love Food Hate Waste for food waste in the UK. Just under 5m tonnes of food wasted in the UK occurs in households – a staggering 70% of all post-farm gate food waste.

A further million tonnes is wasted in the hospitality sector, with the latest government report blaming overly generous portion sizes. This suggests that perhaps – despite the best effort of campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste – farms and retailers have been unfairly targeted by the “wonky veg” campaigns at the expense of focusing on where food waste really hits home. The 2013 Global Food Security Report put the figure for household and hospitality waste at 50% of total UK food waste.

There are some signs we’re getting better at least. WRAP’s 2015 research showed that, at the household level, people now waste 1m tonnes of food per year less than they did in 2007. This is a staggering £3.4 billion per year saved simply by throwing less edible produce away.

As climate change and its influence on extreme weather intensifies, reducing waste from precious food harvests will only become more important. Knowing exactly where the majority of waste occurs, rather than focusing too much on “wonky veg” in farms and supermarkets, is an important step towards making sure everyone has enough affordable and nutritious food to live on.

During the UK’s “Dig for Victory” campaign in World War II, a large proportion of the population had to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Now the majority of people live in cities and towns – typically detached from primary food production. In the UK, the MYHarvest project has started to uncover how much “own-growing” contributes to the national diet and it seems demand for land to grow-your-own is increasing.

Research in Italy and Germany found that people who grow their own food waste the least. One way to fight food waste at home then – whether for “wonky” fruit and vegetables or otherwise – may be to replace the farm-to-fork supply chain with a garden-to-plate approach.


Guest blog written by Miriam C. Dobson, NPhD Researcher in Urban Agriculture, University of Sheffield and Jill L. Edmondson, EPSRC Living with Environmental Change Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution