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It’s about slowing water in the uplands and speeding it in the lowlands

My Times column on the winter floods in Britain:


My invitation to serve on the government’s flood defence review seems to have got stuck in the Christmas post. So here’s a memo, based on Northumberland gossip as well as published papers, for how it should go about its job.

You have been asked to review why Britain has yet again been hit by extremely damaging floods, as it was in Staines in 2014, Somerset in 2013, Cockermouth in 2009, Gloucester in 2007, Carlisle in 2005, Boscastle in 2004 and York in 2000. You will get a lot of advice, much of it delivered by hobby horse. You’ll need to decide how to allocate blame between four things: extreme weather, budget cuts, green priorities and land management.

First, I hope you will give the Environment Agency a hard time. The rain is not its fault, of course, and the quango seems to have done a reasonable job of responding. The fact that its chairman flew off to his home in Barbados between visits to the north of England is a red herring.

But if this were a private company, chartered to manage rivers, it would lose the contract. After York was inundated in 2000, Carlisle in 2005 and Cockermouth in 2009, the least we could expect is that the agency responsible for flood management would either prevent a re-occurrence, or publicly admit that this was impossible. Instead, it spent a fortune on measures that it said would work and didn’t. This is what an EA spokesman told the BBC in January last year: “You can never say never to flooding happening, but what we can say is Carlisle is a well-protected city. The flood defences we have put in place would accommodate and defend against the flooding of 2005. The city would be safe from flooding.”

As for budget cuts, I hope you will challenge the idea, all too common in the public sector, that success is measured by the amount of money spent. The EA was proud that it had spent £38 million on flood defences in Carlisle since 2005, but was it well spent? It’s well known in my part of the world that contractors adore the Environment Agency. Jobs that a local digger driver would do in a couple of days in exchange for a bottle of whisky and a few hundred quid end up getting discussed by committees for months and costing the taxpayer six-figure sums.

While thinking about budgets, please have a really good look at the change in priorities that came with this country’s gold-plated implementation in 2000 of the EU Water Framework Directive. In my experience, the EA talks of little else, and explicitly admits that it and other directives changed its incentive from river management to biodiversity and water quality. Here’s what the National Flood Risk Management Strategy says: “In all instances, flood and coastal risk management should avoid damaging the environment . . . and wherever possible work with natural processes and always seek to provide environmental benefit, as required by the Habitats, Birds and Water Framework Directives.”

The directive was one of the first times the European Union invited the big green environmental organisations to get directly involved in policymaking. As one study of the episode concluded: “The environmental lobby was swift to capitalise on recent changes, and is in as strong a position as it has ever been to shape European water policy.”

Lord De Ramsey, who was the first chairman of the EA and retired in 1999, has this week criticised John Prescott’s decision to appoint the head of the RSPB as chief executive of the EA after he left, since she — Barbara Young — “put environmental concerns before timely maintenance”. This is a serious charge.

In some places dredging rivers to get the water away downstream does help. The people of Cockermouth used to dredge the river Cocker regularly to prevent its bed rising with gravel washed down from the hills. Yet in other places dredging makes things worse. The EA is right about one thing: we need to let rivers spread where they don’t flood houses, and that means getting farmers in the lowlands to pull down flood banks and let the water on to their land. Put flood banks round housing estates, not along rivers. Above all devolve the decision down to local level: revive the local internal drainage boards that used to take these decisions.

Next, don’t believe everything the forestry lobby tells you. It’s true that in general mature trees soak up rainfall and release less during storms than bare hills do. But the opposite is true of newly planted forests, especially as practised by the Forestry Commission in the uplands. A long running experiment at Coalburn in the Kielder forest established that the ditching and ploughing necessary to establish commercial trees such as sitka spruce actually increased peak storm run-off.

Throughout the Cheviots and Pennines, owners of heather moorland have been getting grants to block ditches (which were dug with grants in the 1960s) in order to hold up water and preserve sphagnum bogs in accordance with Natural England’s instructions. Yet they watch with bemusement as the forestry industry just over the fence digs ditches through the very same bogs.

Lightly grazed heather moorland, managed with grouse in mind, and with no forestry ditches, is good at holding back water. Worst is heavily grazed sheep fields and “improved” (ie, drained and re-seeded) land. So please do a fair comparative study of run-off from the three kinds of habitat: those managed for trees, grouse or sheep.

Finally, please resist the cheap excuse of climate change. It was Britain’s second wettest December: the same month in 1929 was wetter, so this kind of saturation could easily have happened even if climate change was not occurring. Besides, if global warming does exacerbate flooding slightly, we still have to deal with it.

As a group of 17 senior climate scientists said in 2013: “Blaming climate change for flood losses makes flood losses a global issue that appears to be out of the control of regional or national institutions. The scientific community needs to emphasise that the problem of flood losses is mostly about what we do on or to the landscape and that will be the case for decades to come.”

Author’s note: Since this article was published the Met Office has issued a statement that for the UK as a whole 2015 was the wettest December since records began in 1910 (230mm vs 211mm for Dec 1929), though the Central England weather data goes back much further and show several wetter Decembers in England.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times