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Keywords:

  • England;
  • flood risk management;
  • fairness;
  • social justice;
  • equity;
  • policy

This paper examines the challenges facing English flood risk management (FRM) policy and practice when considering fair decision-making processes and outcomes at a range of spatial scales. It is recognised that flooding is not fair per se: the inherent natural spatial inequality of flood frequency and extent, plus the legacy of differential system interventions, being the cause. But, drawing on the three social justice models – procedural equality, Rawls’ maximin rule and maximum utility – the authors examine the fairness principles currently employed in FRM decision-making. This is achieved, firstly, in relation to the distribution of taxpayer's money for FRM at the national, regional and local levels and, secondly, for non-structural strategies – most notably those of insurance, flood warnings and awareness raising, land use control, home owner adaptation and emergency management. A case study of the Lower Thames catchment illustrates the challenges facing decision-makers in ‘real life’: how those strategies which appear to be most technically and economically effective fall far short of being fair from either a vulnerability or equality perspective. The paper concludes that if we are to manage flood risk somewhat more fairly then a move in the direction of government funding of nationally consistent non-structural strategies, in conjunction with lower investment decision thresholds for other local-level FRM options, appears to offer a greater contribution to equality and vulnerability-based social justice principles than the status quo.