Policies created by a remote body have been inflexibly implemented on the ground – to catastrophic effect
Storms Ciara and Dennis have been a sobering reminder of the awful damage which flooding can cause. For those directly affected, they have been much more than that. One of my worst memories of being DEFRA Secretary is seeing such terrible destruction first-hand, visiting distraught families whose wedding albums had been destroyed and precious heirlooms irreparably damaged.
Housing Minister Robert Jenrick’s activation of the Government’s Bellwin Scheme to provide financial assistance to the worst-hit areas is welcome, and we should applaud yet again the tireless efforts of the Environment Agency staff on the ground. But the effectiveness of the EA’s teams depends upon clear direction from the top. With the UK at last able to design an independent environmental policy, these events must provide fresh impetus to design a new system tailored to our own environment, implemented through flexible, local control.
When I was Secretary of State for DEFRA, heavy rainfall in December 2013 and January 2014 caused extensive flooding on the Somerset Levels. The causes of that disaster became a lesson in the consequences of policies created by a supranational body being unthinkingly, inflexibly implemented on the ground.
The Levels had been drained for centuries under the auspices of the Royal Bath and West Agricultural Society. Yet when I spoke to them following the 2014 floods, local farmers who had been intimately involved with drainage told the same story about what had led to such catastrophic failure.
When the EA took over responsibility for managing rivers in 1996, it presided over a dramatic decline in regular dredging. Dredging is crucial in keeping rivers flowing. This is vital in preventing flooding; rivers provide the only means by which flood waters can escape to the sea.
Thereafter, the approach of the EA’s leadership typified the depressingly common environmental view that the interest of humans and of “nature” must always be in conflict, and that all we can do is to take the Rousseauian view and let “nature” take its course.
Facing a worldview like this can be exasperating enough for farmers, but it is infinitely worse when it is backed with the presumed authority of EU directives on habitats, biodiversity, silt disposal and flooding. The Floods Directive requires certain floodplains to be allowed to flood. This, in itself, need not be a bad thing; inputs of fresh water can bring enormous biodiversity benefits. But this directive was transformed into a policy which classified areas at risk under six categories, from “Policy Option 1”, where flood defences were a priority, to “Option 6’’ where, to promote “biodiversity”, the strategy should be to “increase flooding”. The Levels were covered by Option 6.
This self-regarding “environmental” thinking was, ultimately, responsible for an environmental disaster estimated to have cost over £100 million. Unable to escape through undredged rivers, the flood waters stagnated, unable to support life and drowning countless land animals and ground-nesting birds.
As Secretary of State, I was able to overrule this wrong-headed consensus, ordering long overdue dredging of rivers to begin and setting up the Somerset Rivers Authority to maintain them. Our model was the Lincolnshire Fens, where effective management is undertaken by local Internal Drainage Boards. Their success demonstrates that it is simply lazy to accept the terrible consequences of flooding as an inevitable consequence of climate change.
The UK has experienced heavy winter rainfall for centuries. We must have adequate responses to cope. Indeed, data from the Welland and Deepings IDB, which has been keeping records since 1829, reveals that the average January rainfall at Pode Hole from 1900 was 2.03in. The average between 2009 and 2019 was 1.76in, with only 3 years seeing January rainfall greater than the 1900 average.
The system of IDBs provides useful lessons in local control. Leaving the EU is a chance to improve our approach, removing the influence of EU directives that are ill-suited to the UK and ensuring that flood management is at the centre of an agricultural and environmental policy designed for our own environment.