Minor flooding, big controversy

A competition amongst journalists for an accurate but boring headline was won by “Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead”.  As a headline it was also brutally insensitive and parochial.  But now we have had a small flood in England, with relatively few properties affected; the main focus being the Somerset Levels where 150 properties were involved.  The Somerset Levels are naturally an area of lakes, islands and wetlands which were extensively drained in the Medieval period, probably largely by Glastonbury Abbey and other monasteries.  Following the food crises of the two World Wars, and the emphasis on bringing every possible hectare of land into food production, very large scale public investment was made in further drainage works which are now nearing the end of their lives.

The flooding at the end of 2013 and early 2014 of the Somerset Levels and other areas showed the collision of three discourses:

  • The local community wanted as much of the taxpayers’ money to be spent as necessary to maintain existing land uses rather than to adapt to an increasing risk.  In particular, they wanted the drainage channels to be dredged.  Few river engineers however have believed that dredging will have a significant long term effect for floods of the levels experienced last winter  (CIWEM “Floods and Dredging – a reality check”). Compared to other communities that had been flooded, including Boston in Lincolnshire where 300 homes were flooded earlier in December, the community of the Somerset Levels were able to mobilise media and political attention.
  • In the current five year spending period, the government has granted Environment Agency £2.3 billion to spend to reduce the risk of flooding.  From this money, the government also expects the Agency to protect 165,000 properties.  This means the Agency can spend around £14,000 per property protected.  Each project must also pass a strict benefit-cost test.  The Agency is allowed to contribute to projects which do not pass the benefit-cost test if the local community contributes to the cost, the share that the Agency is allowed to make being set by government rules.  Under these rules, the Agency would have been allowed to contribute £360,000 to the cost of dredging in the Somerset Levels if the local contributions had covered the balance of the capital costs of £4.2 million.  Dredging at a cost of £5.7 million is now to be funded by the government.
  • The climate change discourse and the need to adapt the way in which we use land to the increased risks of flooding and erosion.  For example, the National Trust, a NGO which owns 10% of the coastline, of which it estimates 60% is exposed to erosion, recently reported on its adaptive strategy (“Shifting Shores”)  and called for a national strategy to adapt land use to the increasing risks of flooding and erosion.

In the short term, the government allocated an additional £270 million to repair those coastal defences, such as shingle banks, and other flood defences damaged by the storms, and for new flood defences.  This sum included some £20 million for works for the areas just flooded on the Somerset Levels.  In the longer term, we need a long term plan for adaption to climate change, one which involves changing the way in which we use land without simply abandoning existing communities as we do at present.  In a time of austerity and restricted public expenditure, when government debt is increasing by £100 billion a year, that process also needs to be affordable if it is to be sustainable.  Part of that is that every pound spent needs to do the work of two.

Colin Green, Middlesex University


Dutch pumps on Somerset Levels, photographer Brian Bateman, source: Environment Agency’s Flickr site