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Managing flood risks and uncertainties in Cornwall

Managing flood risks and uncertainties in Cornwall

Dr Nick Kirsop-Taylor and Professor David Benson. The University of Exeter (Cornwall). Politics.

Key findings

  • We don’t know enough about how communities perceive the risks and uncertainties around climate-induced flooding.
  • We conducted in-depth qualitative research in a Cornish community to better understand this.
  • Community members perceived that flooding was increasing, and with it perceptions of risk to both people and capital assets.
  • Also an eroding sense of legitimacy in state agencies and institutions to support communities that flood.
  • This was precipitating an invigorated sense of community reciprocity networks based on social capital and risk perceptions.


Flooding is one of the most significant risks facing the UK from climate change. With climate change intensities and impacts set to increase over the coming decades, how communities manage flooding and the changing nature of the risks that floods present, is a critical issue in ensuring their resilience. Currently we don’t know enough about how communities are responding to the increased risks of flooding. Part of the challenge lies in trying to understand how communities perceive the risks of flooding, and how these perceptions effect the measures they put in place to mitigate for and adapt to them. Cornwall is famous for its close-knit and resilient communities, many of which are at the forefront of dealing with riverine, estuarine, and coastal flood risks.

In 2018 Dr’s Benson, Kirsop-Taylor and Pearce from the University of Exeter in Cornwall and Dr Lorenzoni from the University of East Anglia received funding through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to conduct research in partnership with the National Flood Forum to better understand how a Cornish community was perceiving and responding to flood risks. To do this they worked closely with thirty individuals within a single Cornish community that experienced both coastal and riverine flooding. The overwhelming perception amongst members of this community was that the flooding was getting worse, and whilst there was little they as a community could do to mitigate for this, they had some potential to adapt to it. They considered the flooding they experienced in terms of the risks to people, the individual, and the community, and risks to capital in terms of individual property and public infrastructure. There was also a pronounced sense of uncertainty about future flooding risks – in terms of how it might have negative economic, social and developmental consequences. These perceptions of risk(s) and uncertainties combined to erode faith in the legitimacy of large public institutions to help them mitigate and adapt to future flooding. They instead expressed a re-emergence and increasing reliance on social and community relationships and social capital. That is, they expressed a diminishing faith in ‘government’ to help them manage and hedge against the risks and uncertainties of future flooding as opposed to each other and their ‘community’. These findings are important as understanding community resilience in response to broader climate risks is an area of significant academic and practical interest. Certainly, it isn’t an optimal situation that community resilience is strengthening due largely to a dwindling faith in government, though these findings suggest the forms and dynamics that community flood resilience in Cornwall and around the UK might adopt in response to increased flooding risks. This research was used to inform the National Flood Forum’s strategy on community risk management. It also fed into the ongoing work of the Cornwall Flood Forum run by Cornwall Council. Two peer-reviewed academic papers are being created from the data collected, the first scheduled for publication in late 2020 and the second in 2021.

For more information about this research or to request copies of its outputs please contact, Nick Taylor-Kirsop (