Magically, the Government has found £40 million to spend on flood protection in Yorkshire after the huge floods there.
Ministers say they’ll do everything possible to help and will learn lessons. Is this true when they ignore smarter natural ways to reduce flood risk?
Chucking money at areas after flooding has devastated people’s homes, businesses and lives – long after the waters have receded – is bad governance.
It’s also bad use of public funds which, we are told, are in short supply.
Flooding from rivers will happen again because it is a natural process – it’s what rivers do. But successive governments have adding to flood risk by allowing the misuse of land and building in clumsy ways.
Ministers must wake up to the smarter natural ways to keep us safe and protect our homes, business and land.
If they want to avoid extensive flooding – and having to chuck more magic money at the problem – Ministers should
- End their stop-start approach to flood protection and spending;
- Properly maintain existing flood defences – just as it makes no sense to build roads without filling pot-holes; and,
- Adopt a range of smart natural ways to manage land and water together from the uplands and farmland to flood-prone towns downstream and newly built homes and developments.
Perfect storm warning
Time and again, the Government has been warned about cuts to existing flood defences and to the staff and expertise at the Environment Agency.
Less than a year ago the Yorkshire Post reported MPs’ concerns about the effects of Government cuts.
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) also urged Ministers to “act with caution” when making budget decisions on flood risk.
Ministers have also been advised to improve how land is managed and developed, including for new homes, and to restore upland and peat land areas, to help absorb high rainfall.
Instead, Ministers have given in to developers’ demands to water down sensible plans to raise the standards new housing and other development should meet.
As a result, the building boom Ministers are pushing could worsen flood risk rather than help relieve it.
Smart, not soggy
Being smart with water means common sense things from having less hard surfacing in new development and more ‘green roofs’ and open spaces that help retain water.
For existing homes a good start would be preventing so many front gardens from being turned into car parks which just let water hit our stressed Victorian sewers faster and harder.
The Government could also give householders grants to help them fit ‘rainwater harvesting’ kits to collect some of the free water we get when it rains – handy for when the next drought turns our gardens brown.
How we build matters. So does where we build. Astonishingly, many new homes are still being built on flood plains, against Environment Agency advice, as the latest figures show.
People versus nature?
Claims that wildlife is being prioritised over people miss the point. Restoring the natural banks and upland catchments of our rivers means they can act as sponges when it rains and waters rise, releasing water more slowly when waters calm.
Adopting proven natural ways to stay dry and safe works – and can be done without making things worse for wildlife.
Just look at the Yorkshire town of Pickering. Denied money for physical defences the town found effective natural ways to protect itself.
Nature can be our best form of self-defence. It is doable and is better than splashing the cash after the event.
Review or do?
Finding magic money is one thing. Actually doing something and changing direction is quite another.
The Government says it will conduct yet another flood review. It shouldn’t have to look far.
A major review of how badly we manage water and deal with flooding was done by Sir Michael Pitt after the major floods in 2007.
The 2007 floods damaged 55,000 properties. Most of the damage was traced to drains and sewers being unable to cope with the downpour. Heavy rain is one thing but why make it easier for whatever rain falls to flood us by letting it run off faster and harder than needed?
The Pitt Review proposed sensible ‘sustainable urban drainage’ measures. These would equip new houses and development with clever ways to intercept, divert and store rainfall putting less pressure on surrounding land and drains.
Instead of embracing such clever measures Ministers see them as a burden on developers who would be dissuaded from developing land as profitably as they might.
The inevitable flooding to come will expose this short-sighted approach. It will also test claims that spending on ‘our environment’ has to be cut year on year.
Defra, the Government’s environment department, was cut by 30 per cent by the Coalition Government.
Many can’t wait to see the Government’s axe fall again on Defra expertise and budgets perhaps by another 30 per cent.
It’s not as though Defra is a big department in the first place – as this comprehensive view of government spending shows.
Will Ministers keep cutting environment budgets, staffing and expertise?
Will they continue opening the planning floodgates which force local councils to release land for pretty much anything developers demand even if it would be best left undeveloped or used in other ways?
Will they keep the current weakened building standards when changes would make the homes of the future safer?
Will Ministers’ flood review even be allowed to ask such questions?
Most of all – and despite David Cameron’s telling the historic Paris climate talks that “we should be taking action against climate change today” – we’re still waiting to see what policies and actions the Government has up its sleeve.
When floods hit his own Oxfordshire constituency in 2008 David Cameron told MPs “Most people accept that, with climate change, [floods] are likely to be more frequent”.
But it’s unclear how will his Government will make up for all of the cuts it is making to Britain’s investment in a low carbon and climate-resilient future?
And how will Ministers reverse the decline of nature across the UK including the pitiful state of our rivers, waterways and uplands all of which raise than reduce flood risk?
The Government’s flood review will be worthless if it fails to address such questions.
Let’s end with David Cameron’s last words to the Paris climate speech: “What we are looking for is not difficult, it is doable and therefore we should come together and do it.”
Yes, Prime Minister!