Were I one of the many people in Britain pulling up sodden carpets and sweeping out stinking mud yesterday, the very last thing I’d want to hear was a Cabinet minister saying he was ‘happy’ with the performance of our flood defences.
That was the, frankly, incredible message from Environment Secretary George Eustice following Storm Dennis this weekend.
Neither would I have been overjoyed to hear Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, on Radio 4’s Today programme, blaming it all on the ‘climate emergency’.
Yes, it was pretty wet over the weekend, but the belief that we’ve suffered some kind of unprecedented deluge caused by global warming simply isn’t true.
Yes, it was pretty wet over the weekend, but the belief that we’ve suffered some kind of unprecedented deluge caused by global warming simply isn’t true. Pictured, a family is rescued in Nantgarw, Wales
Tredegar in South Wales, the wettest place in the UK this weekend, received 62.6mm of rain on Sunday.
That is less than a third of the 211mm which fell in a single day at the nearby Lluest-Wen Reservoir on November 11, 1929, long before anyone started worrying about climate change.
Britain has long been a storm‑lashed country, exposed to the worst that Atlantic weather systems have to offer. We’ve always had downpours and we’ve always had floods.
What makes flooding more common now is that while we persist in building new homes on natural floodplains which, in the past, were key to flood management, we refuse to invest in the defences needed to protect them.
Blaming it all on climate change is a feeble excuse. It does, however, beg a question: if climate change is making the country more vulnerable now and in the future, as government bodies keep telling us, why aren’t they taking flood defence more seriously?
Our spending on flood risk is pathetically tiny and our approach to flood defence isn’t fit for the climate we have, let alone for any changes that may come.
That was the, frankly, incredible message from Environment Secretary George Eustice (pictured) following Storm Dennis this weekend
This year, central government funding for new river and coastal flood defences and maintaining existing ones is £815.4 million — which is just one-tenth of the annual subsidies government and consumers are paying for wind farms, solar panels and other renewable energy. And it is a fraction of the £1 billion that the Met Office is spending on its new supercomputer.
So never mind the £106 billion estimate for HS2 or the latest of the grands projets, that bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
It is new infrastructure to provide effective river and coastal flood protection that the country is crying out for. All we’re doing at present is putting up a few walls and temporary barriers, which too often fail.
Residents of Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire were promised new defences after devastating floods in 2012 and 2015. But they’re still not finished, and what has been built has proved inadequate as homes and businesses flooded again.
It is an all-too-familiar story. During the floods of 2007, nine flood defence schemes around the country — some of them only recently built — failed.
In 2012, residents of the Worcestershire village of Kempsey celebrated the completion of flood defence works. A few weeks later, their homes were flooded again.
Residents of Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire were promised new defences after devastating floods in 2012 and 2015. But they’re still not finished, and what has been built has proved inadequate as homes and businesses flooded again (pictured)
In Dundee a week ago, Storm Ciara left a street flooded in spite of a new £7 million defence scheme — because the system’s gates had been left open. This week in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, new drains were supposed to take away flood-waters — yet water has been bubbling up through them and into people’s homes.
We used to take flood defence seriously. The Jubilee River in Berkshire was constructed in the late 1990s and early 2000s to take overflow from the Thames and so protect Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton.
Similarly, the River Lea diversion scheme was created to protect East London.
In Tonbridge, Kent, which was hit by devastating floods in 1968, dams built upstream in the 1980s have, for the most part, successfully protected the town by holding water back from the Rivers Medway and Eden during heavy rain.
But these kind of projects are no longer carried out in Britain, due both to cost and to ideology.
Until 1996, flood defence was the job of the National Rivers Authority and was focused on one thing: managing flood risk. It was then subsumed into the newly created Environment Agency, which seems to see its job as much about creating habitats for wading birds as it has been about defending our homes.
It is new infrastructure to provide effective river and coastal flood protection that the country is crying out for. Pictured, a woman is evacuated from her home in Hereford
Anyone who doubts me should check out what the agency has to say on its website about the Greatham Creek flood defence scheme on Teeside. You’ll see the main boast is that it has created 80 football pitches-worth of new bird habitats.
What the fat cats and apparatchiks of the Environment Agency prefer to do nowadays is follow a policy of ‘managed retreat’ in many places — in other words, letting the sea flood large areas of land in order to create wetlands for wading birds.
That shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider who is running it, because it’s not specialist water engineers. Chief executive James Bevan is an ex-Foreign Office mandarin and social anthropologist, while executive director of operations Toby Willison is an ecologist.
In Thirlmere in Cumbria last week, flooding could have been avoided if water had been released from a reservoir ahead of the forecast for heavy rain. United Utilities, which owns the reservoir, said it needed permission from the Environment Agency to release water ‘for conservation reasons’ and that it hadn’t been given permission.
As with river defences, so with sea defences: we are failing to build sea walls or to move sand back onto eroded beaches. Take the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk. In 1990, a concrete sea wall was proposed. But then John Major’s government changed the criteria for working out the cost/benefit of sea defences, and the sea wall was cancelled because the bungalows on the cliff top were deemed not valuable enough to save.
All we’re doing at present is putting up a few walls and temporary barriers, which too often fail. Pictured, people bail water out of flooded homes after the River Wye burst its banks in Ross-on-Wye
The village was effectively abandoned. Now the sea is advancing at 20ft a year and threatening the medieval church and the coast road.
Compare this with how the Dutch defend their country, a quarter of which lies below sea level. They build and maintain proper flood banks; and if the beaches start to erode, they ‘recharge’ them by piping in sand from sandbanks.
Indeed, a Dutch company has been hired to build a sand dune to protect a four-mile stretch of Norfolk cliff. But it’s only happening because the owners of the Bacton Gas Terminal on the North Norfolk coast — a vital part of our energy infrastructure — is putting up the money.
And then there is the perversity of government planning. How do ministers, who bang on about a ‘climate emergency’ and warn us that glaciers are melting and sea levels rising, justify a new nuclear power station on low-lying coastal land at Hinckley in Somerset and, possibly, another next to the sea at Sizewell, Suffolk?
Boris Johnson has made infrastructure a priority for his government, and quite rightly. But alongside the grandiose we need the mundane and the practical: better river and coastal flood defences must be a top priority whether or not the climate is changing.