Keeping Cool in a Crisis

John Curtin

After COVID and its impact on the economy, flooding poses the most immediate threat to the lives of the UK population, but the greater of all is climate change and John Curtin (Environmental Sciences, 1990, Fylde) has advised the Government on them all. 

As Executive Director of Local Operations for the Environment Agency, rivers and flooding make up John’s key expertise - whether from a desk or at the scene in wellies and waterproofs. But his practical experience of responding to natural disasters saw him brought in to advise SAGE on COVID in March 2020, on how to develop the best crisis management procedures to a pandemic which scientists and politicians already suspected was not going to be a quick fix. 

John has form on developing strategies. His leadership of a new approach to flood resilience for the UK in the light of climate change led to the Government’s adoption of the National Flood and Coast strategy to the year 2100. For this he was awarded the 2020 British Hydrological Society’s President’s Prize. 

Now part of the executive team leading the Environment Agency’s 10,500 high performing staff and £1.3bn annual budget, John has acted as advisor on 80 COBR meetings since 2007 (including working with Boris Johnson on the Manchester floods). It was his frontline experience of turning strategy into practical action which saw him and advising Chief Scientist, Patrick Vallance on how to deal with a global public health emergency. 

He says: “They wanted to know how to sustain a response in a long term incident. I’m used to translating evidence into decision making and long-term resilience. The winter floods of 2013/14 in Somerset were not the result of a single storm, but of a series of them. You might deal with one storm well but you always have too be looking at what might lie ahead 3-6 months in the future. The key to success is scenario planning. You need to do a lot of ‘what ifs’.” 

Sitting opposite the Prime Minister and his special adviser Dominic Cummings in COBR meetings, John was amused to remember that he was once described at Lancaster University as a ‘deeply average student’, which he admits was probably the case. 

Brought up in Leicestershire by his mother, on free school lunches, with his grandparents next door, he says Lancaster University offered the chance to escape a home life he compares with the 1980s sitcom, Bread. He was looking for freedom a long way from home, he loved the college system and was delighted that the Lake District was on its doorstep. 

He’d signed up for Chemistry, but it did not take him long to realise that his free choice module of Environmental Sciences had captivated him and after his first year he switched degree. His big inspiration was hydrologist Professor Keith Beven, whose main research interests are in hydrological modelling and the prediction of uncertainties associated with environmental models - for which he was also awarded the President’s Prize in 2013 seven years before his pupil. 

John says: “I owe Lancaster University a huge debt. My life would have been very different if I had not gone there, with its inbuilt flexibility.” 

From then on, John spent much of his time on hydrology, inspired by Professor Beven, with the Lake District as a useful resource. He says: “Environmental Sciences was really dynamic. There was real energy round the department. It was a new and growing subject and linked in with the fundamentals of other degrees like engineering. 

“People were really dismissive of the subject in the 80s and 90s, but it opened my eyes to a whole world I had not seen - I can remember a paper which woke me up to desertification. I started feeling as if it was an important part of what was going to be important. I also realised that it was a very people-centred science.” 

This human aspect continues to compel him. He describes seeing a squaddie in tears during the 2015/16 Cumbria floods, after he had just put an old woman’s entire life in a skip, in disposing of the contents of her water-ravaged house.

Away from the lecture theatre, he remembers going round the Freshers’ Fair ‘like a kid in a sweet shop’ joining a range of societies including fencing and karate, just to ‘give it a go’. Suddenly he had time as he no longer had to get up to earn money by preparing paper rounds for a local newsagent as he had since the age of 15. He was also prominent in college sporting activities. Through Fylde he made a group of friends with whom he still gets together every year to go to a cricket match. 

After graduation he went on to do a Masters in IT at Aston University before landing his first job as an assistant hydrologist at the National Rivers Authority, thanks to the work on reservoir modelling he had done in his final year at Lancaster. This led to a number of operational roles in flood management and water regulation with the National Rivers Authority and the Environment Agency, before being appointed Director of Incident Management and Resilience for the Environment Agency in 2012 - a strategic role which saw him responding to major flooding and environmental disasters. From 2015 until his current appointment in December 2020, he was in charge of flood and coastal risk management for the Environmental Agency. 

As COVID continues to occupy centre stage, John warns of the danger of disregarding climate change, which does not go away because of the pandemic. He believes that protection against climate change is a myth, but that the only solution is long-term adaptation including farming practices, land management and environmental measures. 

“The interesting thing with risk management is that human beings have an optimism bias,” he observes. “So we have to be very careful to deal with the incident in front of us not the one we want it to be.” 

John recently returned to his alma mater to give a lecture and was touched to see Keith Beven, the man who inspired him, in the audience. Seeing the notices guiding him to ‘The John Curtin Lecture” sparked a realisation: “As a human being, Lancaster gave me the confidence (as a person from my background) to do things like giving that lecture and to sit in a COBR meeting with Boris Johnson leading it.”

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