David Cameron was ill advised to brag about how much flood defence work has been done during his premiership – surrounded as he was by flood water in York. “Like much of the rest of what you have done as prime minister David, your actions on flood prevention have been demonstrably inadequate. That’s why you were surrounded by flood water!”
The line being taken by this lamentable government is that the floods of this winter were ‘unprecedented’. The impression that they want to leave with the public is that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent them and that they are a one-off event, unlikely to be repeated. “So, Environment Minister Truss” [who has repeated the ‘unprecedented’ line like well trained parrot] “were the floods of 2007 or of 2014 also ‘unprecedented’? Doesn’t ‘unprecedented’ mean ‘not happened before’?”
After the 2007 flooding in the West country, there was a Government review of flood prevention, yet the area flooded again 7 years later. Was the review implemented in full? Apparently not. The Government, both Labour and Tory, chose to bail out the banks so leaving thousands of people now having to bail out their homes. Flood prevention can be an expensive business and needs long term planning, so on taking office in 2010, the Tories, with their LibDem side kicks slashed the budget for flood defences in 2011, eviscerated the Environment Agency, and to please their developer friends tore up planning regulations to allowing more flood plain development – to ‘boost the economy’.
Failing to invest in flood defence is equally costly, £1.5 billion the estimates cost of the York floods alone. The difference being is that the cost of prevention falls largely on the public purse, that the Tories are deliberately shrinking. The cost of repairing the damage falls largely on private pockets, 99% of which are being rapidly emptied by Tory policy, and after all, disasters are good for the economy – nothing like a bit of destruction to stimulate business.
Enough cynicism – what should be done, what would the Greens do? First we remind everyone that extreme weather events such as we have seen in December 2015 were the predictable outcome of the failure to combat climate change over the last 20 years. The damage wrought by flooding and storms is the price of climate scepticism and the inaction that it spawns. While it is still not possible to ‘prove’ that the Christmas storms are a result of climate change, it is the increasing frequency of violent weather that is indicative of the changing climate, and underlines the need to take preventative action.
Flood prevention needs long term planning, by people who understand the whole water cycle. It is not just about dredging – which can make matters worse in some cases, or building up river banks. It needs to include a management plan for the whole of a river catchment. It also needs an understanding of future patterns of weather. We have to accept that the extreme weather events that we have been seeing over the last decade are not ‘unprecedented’ one-off events, but the shape of things to come. We have to plan defences that can accommodate such events on a regular basis.
Flood prevention begins in the uplands of the river catchment. Here land use needs to be designed to enable the land to hold water and to slow down run off so as to take the strain of drainage channels – streams, dykes and rivers. This will include tree planting and permanent ground cover, plant roots helping to hold soil in place and to increase the capacity of the uplands to hold water and release it slowly.
It will include the middle reaches of the catchment where natural floodplains need to be created where the rivers and streams are allowed to burst their banks and flood the land creating temporary storage lakes for excess water. Rivers need to be allowed to meander, so again increasing their capacity. Straightening rivers only increases the speed with which water is delivered to the lower reaches of the river, where most of our major urban areas are sited. There has to be a ban on building on designated floodplain. The designation of these areas of land has to be done by hydrologists who know what capacity is needed to avoid serious flooding and not by ministers in Whitehall offices wanting to hit house building targets or major infrastructure development for the purposes of boosting the economy.
We have to look now at adaptation to flooding. We can’t move our towns and cities that are mostly built on rivers and their natural floodplains. Move electric circuits above the 100 year flood level, because this level is likely to be reached each decade of this century. Treat walls so that they are less vulnerable to water and will dry out more quickly. Make it possible for ground floors to be cleared of valuables at short notice. Make effective temporary flood defences available to all in need – there must be something better than leaky sandbags for blocking off doorways. Improve local warning networks and properly equip and train local emergency services so that they can act quickly and effectively, something that the army is not able to do.
In the medium term we will have to grasp the nettle of giving up on defence work and allow some areas to flood, just as we will have to abandon some areas of coastline to erosion. But this needn’t mean that such land can’t be developed if that is necessary. We can learn from Venice and the bronze age lake dwellers. Build on stilts, let water run freely through the ground story, encourage such flood prone communities to be more self sufficient, so that being cut off isn’t a major problem. Local self reliance is going to become ever more important in a warming world. This doesn’t mean ‘survivalism’, it means building resilient communities with effective local government that can develop the needed long term planning and ensure that the resources needed in an emergency are there. Letting local government escape from the ‘one size fits all’ approach adopted by central governments of the last 30 years, able respond to local needs and local circumstances, not the needs of Ministers with an election to win. This is the Green view of sustainability and self reliance. Not isolationism of the ‘survivalists’, but liberating local communities, villages, towns and cities from the dead hand of autocratic government, enabling them to manage local resources, respond to local needs and adapt to the physical, climatic and biological changes that will be coming our way.