The floods: some long-term thinking needed

Here is a slightly expanded version of my column for the next issue of the Countryman, available in all good newsagents. 

 

CPRE’s former President Bill Bryson is always amused by the English fascination with the weather.  “To an outsider,” he once wrote, “the most striking thing about the English weather is that there isn’t very much of it.”  Well, I think even Bill would concede that we have had quite a lot of ‘weather’ recently.   

Whether the extreme weather that has become more commonplace is down to man-made climate change continues to be questioned, though not by many climate scientists: those who know most tend to worry most.

But whatever the cause of the extreme weather of recent years, we should expect more of it.  As I write, there is a war of words about whether the Environment Agency has done its job adequately; whether the Government has let it do its job; whether countryside has been sacrificed to protect the towns where most voters live. 

This is understandable.  Somerset farmers whose fields have been turned into lakes and householders assessing the damage to their properties and their lives are understandably angry. But whatever the shortcomings of politicians and government bodies (and most experts think the Environment Agency has done a good job, in spite of the cuts it has had to take) the really significant fact is this: the recent weather has been more severe than for a hundred years, and around the world we are seeing ‘once in a hundred years’ extremes every few years. 

So we need to think much more deeply about how we cope with a changing climate.  This will not be easy.  There is certainly no straightforward countryside perspective.  Attempts to pit the country against the town are (as they usually are) misguided. 

Preventing future floods may, for instance, require serious changes to farming practices – more woodland, better care of soils, even abandoning some farmland.  That is not to say that farmers should simply become land managers and stop growing food in order to prevent floods.  As a culture we do not pay sufficient attention to the rather important question of how we grow our food and who grows it.  But climate change will have profound implications for all aspect of land use, and most of the land in England is farmland.      

The Government must also think again about house building.  Of course we badly need to build more houses, and it is too simple to say that houses should never be built in flood plains.  But they should not just be plonked down with no thought to minimising the risk of flooding or ensuring resilience when the floods come, as they inevitably will.  As it is, the Government is weakening building regulations and planning controls when they need to be strengthened.  It is thinking short-term when it should be thinking long-term.  In the context of the recent floods, that looks breathtakingly negligent.         

AFTERWORD

Since writing this, the Prime Minister has made the interesting statement that ‘money is no object; we are a rich nation’.  But some people have not yet got the message and continue to believe last week’s narrative, that the country is broke.  They are using the floods to attack things they don’t like.  The Daily Mail wants to divert overseas aid to flood victims (under the slogan ‘F– Them’ according to various accounts on Twitter, though I think that may be a parody because the Mail doesn’t use the f-word).  Anti-HS2 campaigners want to stop HS2 and build a railway in the South West instead.   

All this is predictable, but it rather misses the point.  Of course we must help flood victims, and of course we are we are a rich enough nation to do so.  And of course we must strengthen flood defences. 

But will also need to find some serious money in the coming years to deal with our changing climate, and make some serious changes to the way we live.  That has not been said enough in recent days.

 

2 Responses to “The floods: some long-term thinking needed”


  1. 1 Hayley Jones February 12, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Here, here. Of course I have a lot of sympathy for those affected, but pointing the finger doesn’t change the fact that the weather, even by British standards, has been exceptionally wet this winter. When will the powers that be actually think seriously about how we respond to climate change?? There is no time to lose.

  2. 2 andrew needham February 13, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Regional Flood and Coastal Committees (RFCCs)

    RFCCs play an important local role in guiding flood and coastal risk management activities within catchments and along the coast,.

    They determine priorities for maintenance and capital investment.

    ·Map showing RFCC boundaries (PDF 54KB)


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