As Britain experiences the severest flooding weather since records began, the debate on its management has been reduced to a lack of dredging at the Somerset levels. Government politicians, Pickles in particular, have attempted to blame poor advice and lack of flood expertise from the Environment Agency.
The reality is that it is the cuts imposed by the government which have limited the work on flood prevention including dredging in the rivers Parrott and Tone and the many drainage canals and ditches in the levels. Dredging is required as these rivers are above the level of the surrounding land. However in the present inundation, though dredging would have lessened the extent, it alone would not have prevented widespread flooding. Prevention requires a much greater level of investment to manage the catchment area including changes in land management upstream of the levels to reduce the rate of flow of rainstorm water.
A large cut in the EA budget occurred in 2010 reducing it by £110 million a year. The priorities set by government for work were first to save lives, then save houses and last protect agricultural land. These priorities, though sensible, leave areas like the Somerset levels exposed.
Importantly the danger is that funds will be switched to politically sensitive areas exposing areas with greater risk to life and property. For example a £99 million flood defence scheme in Boston, Lincolnshire, which would protect thousands of homes is still awaiting central government approval as are hundreds of smaller schemes around the country.
Hundreds of billions of pounds have been spent on ‘quantitative-easing’ putting money into banks bonds to reduce their speculative losses, while pretending that the purpose was to encourage lending to businesses and industry. A fraction of that amount invested in flood prevention would have created real jobs and produced a benefit against flood damage of £8 for every £1 spent.
Workers in the EA and numerous local government engineering departments and private sector consultancies have developed a high level of expertise and effectiveness in fighting floods in the UK and have learned and implemented lessons from the floods in 1953 and 2007. The 1953 surge in eastern England caused 300 deaths, many sea wall breaches and 24,000 flooded properties. The comparable surge last year caused no deaths and resulted in 18,00 flooded properties in that area, demonstrating that the weather forecasting and flood warning systems developed since 2007 has proved highly effective. The recent flooding is unusual in that it has included coastal, river, surface water and ground water flooding in various parts of the UK.
The lack of dredging in some rivers is symptomatic of reductions in maintenance by numerous bodies to cut costs. Canal sluices, drains and gullies have less maintenance. Rail infrastructure and essential utilities such as electrical substations have to be made resilient to floods. The challenge of adaptation to climate change is great. We cannot afford to allow politicians to trivialise the problem and attack the real experts and to subsidise the banks whilst cutting down on essential investment.