“L’intercommunalité”: how the French Communes make use of intercommunal cooperations to improve flood risk management

By Marie Fournier

As already mentioned in a previous column for the STAR-FLOOD project, the process of decentralisation of powers in France has progressively left more room to territorial actors, Communes in particular, in flood risk management since the beginning of the 1980s.

Marie-Fournier-small2After the laws on decentralization (1982), several other texts in 1987 (law on civil safety, protection of forests against fire and on major risks prevention), 2003 (law on technological and natural risks) and 2004 (law for the modernization of civil safety) have increased the responsibilities of the French communal authorities.

Communes give building permits and define local planning documents; as such, they are a key stakeholder for flood prevention. It is also important to remind that, among other things, they have responsibilities in the fields of:

  • Flood defence: communal authorities must check on the good maintenance of local protection works by their owners (dikes for instance) ;
  • Risk prevention: if a PPRi (Plan de Prévention des Risques d’inondation) is applied on their territory, they must regularly inform inhabitants of the existing risks in the Commune by several means (meetings, documents (Dossier d’Information Communale sur les Risques Majeurs (DICRIM)) ;
  • Flood preparation: again, if a PPRi is applied on their territory, they must organize local safety measures and a safety plan (Plan Communal de Sauvegarde)

Such responsibilities are quite heavy and difficult to face for many French communes. There are about 36 000 communes in France, of which at least 32 000 have fewer than 1 000 inhabitants and therefore little financial and material resources to face those duties. As a matter of fact, cooperation between Communes within the frame of intercommunal structures are becoming more and more frequent in the field of flood risk management.

Early, French communes got into the habit of setting up different forms of cooperation amongst themselves. First laws enabling cooperation between Communes via syndicates on technical issues were taken in 1890 and 1959. In 1935, the status of “Mixed Association” was created. “Mixed Associations” are a possibility for Départements, Communes and other public institutions to regroup themselves in the form of associations to manage public services. Later on, new forms of intercommunality have been created (“Communautés Urbaines” for major cities in 1966, “Communautés d’Agglomération” and “Communautés de Communes” for small or medium-size cities in 1992). Those forms of cooperation are much more integrated: Communes decide to transfer some of their competences to the new intercommunal structure.

From the perspective of a communal authority, there are several assets to deal with the issue of flood risk and flood risk management at an intercommunal level. While Communes are limited by their administrative boundaries, an intercommunal intervention framework enables local authorities to tackle flood risk management at a larger and more coherent scale. In an intercommunal cooperation, complementarities can be found between Communes potentially strongly endangered by floods and those which are not or less at risk. Within an intercommunal structure, financial, material and human means are also more important than at the communal level. Therefore, it becomes easier for them to address legal requirements.

To illustrate this tendency, we can take examples from the Loire river basin. Briefly, we will describe three types of intercommunal cooperation dealing with flood risk management on the Loire river. The three of them present different levels of integration.

On the Loire river, intercommunal cooperation dealing with the flood risk issue started in the 1990s. In 1995, while the State administration issued its first PPRi, whose main aim was to stop any new urbanization in floodplains little or not at all urbanized, several Communes from the Loire valley faced the possibility that any new urbanization would be prohibited for them definitely. As a reaction, an “Association de Défense des Communes Riveraines de la Loire” was created (Association for the Defence of the Communes Bordering on the Loire). This association was created to gather the Communes facing the same issue, raise the problem at the national level and gain a better audience. Locally, the association played an important role in the discussion and negotiation of the PPRi rules and maps with the State administration. After several years and little by little, the structure encountered a transition from a “defensive” approach to a more constructive one. Today, it is named “Association of the Communes Bordering on the Loire”; it keeps informing its members (about 40 Communes) and their elected people on the flood issue and the new ways to address or deal with it. It is also involved in different local processes to conciliate the development of floodplains and risk management.

Etablissement Public Loire (EPLoire) is another example of intercommunal cooperation dealing with the flood issue on the Loire rive. It is a “Mixed Association” and has been recognized as a “Territorial public establishment of basin” (an intercommunal water actor) within the framework of the 2006 Water Law. It groups together Communes, Départements, some Régions that are part of the Loire basin, as well as other local public authorities. While it used to be a public establishment dealing with construction and maintenance of structural works (especially dams in the upstream part of the river basin), it has enlarged its tasks in the last decade in the field of flood risk management. This structure has strongly engaged itself in the field of vulnerability reduction, mobilizing European and national fundings for the reduction of vulnerability of enterprises on the Loire valley. What is more, it is also very much involved in the assistance of Communes to face their responsibilities in the field of flood management. For instance, EPLoire gives technical support and advice to the Loire Communes for the establishment of their Plan Communal de Sauvegarde (safety plan). Last but not least, in some local cases, EPLoire also plays a role of facilitator or mediator between the State administration (owner of most of the dikes on the Loire river and responsible for the PPPRi implementation) and the Communes.

Eventually, it appears that intercommunal structures, whose competences are not really on flood management at first, also start to tackle the issue. This is particularly the case of some “Communautés d’Agglomération” (in Orléans or Nevers for instance) or “Communautés de Communes”. In those cases, intercommunal cooperation is an important mean for small communes to face their legal requirements. For instance, downstream Tours, the “Communauté de Communes du Pays d’Azay” (12 Communes, about 12 000 inhabitants) decided to implement an intercommunal safety plan (Plan Intercommunal de Sauvegarde). While most communes would have been unable to create such a document on their own, technical assistance has been given by the EPLoire and the whole process has been carried out by a technician responsible for water issues at the intercommunal level. Within this document, cooperation has been organized between the Communes which could potentially be flooded completely and those where inhabitants could be evacuated.

To conclude, various intercommunal structures tend to become key stakeholders in the field of flood risk management in France since a few years; they enable the Communes to meet their legal requirements and even go further. We can expect the STAR-FLOOD case studies to give us new illustrations of this general trend.

LARRUE C., FOURNIER M., “The role of local actors in water and flood management in France: between policy formulation and policy implementation”, in HILL M., Studying Public Policy. An international approach, Policy Press, will be published in April 2014

Loire river at dusk Figure 1: The Loire river at dusk (Location: Tours, France)