Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The aftermath of the deluge

Pictures of the towns along the Thames valley and the villages on the Somerset Levels paint a grim picture of Britain in 2014 but, thankfully, we have not seen huge loss of life. We have, however, seen a huge verbal backlash against decent people who have always done their level best to do their jobs according to the rules that limit their ability to deliver what people want. The limitations that Environment Agency staff face are largely financial, but one also has to bear in mind that doing a decent job also demands time and consensus-building. They have a very challenging job, and deserve considerable praise rather than the mud-slinging that we have seen from certain parts of the political establishment and elements of the press (who are always keen to stir up a witch-hunt against public servants).

Wave upon wave of new storms have delivered unprecedented rainfall upon already sodden ground; and, further batterings by major storms along the south and west coast. There is likely to be little respite in the foreseeable future, so the criticism of the EA will doubtless increase in volume. There is barely a voice of reason saying 'hang on, this is the most extreme event in 250 years'.

Critics who argue that the situation should have been planned for have little comprehension of what planning for such events might cost, or might involve. If this year's events become the threshold for flood-risk planning then somebody is going to have to find an awful lot of money, and fast!

It is not the EA who are to blame, but society at large. The voters on the Levels and those in Surrey and Berkshire, whose homes are flooded, live in constituencies that returned Conservative MPs. It is these same MPs who have supported draconian cuts to the budgets of the Environment Agency and Natural England and have represented the democratic voices of their constituents. When the weather was good and there was no risk, both organisations were regarded as too fat, and therefore ripe for efficiency gains. Now, the picture looks a little different, at least for the EA.

But the howls are still there - not only calls for Chris Smith's head, but print space given to the view that 'we need the names of those who gave that advice and confirmation that they will never be allowed near a decision of that importance again'. The latter quote is from that well-known voice of reason and common-sense - the Sun no surprises there!

Both views are utterly reprehensible for several very important reasons:
  • If a blame culture develops, public services are paralysed by the need to make sure that nobody makes a decision without seeking sign-off at one or more level above them. This is the 'cover your back' culture that cripples flexibility and initiative.
  • Engineering is hardly the highest-paid profession but it demands considerable skill and many years of training. Chartered membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) or the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) only follows further study and rigorous examination. Why should anybody make the effort when a sword hangs over them saying ' one unfortunate extreme event and your head is on the block'?
  • The Environment Agency is tasked with shedding about 1,700 posts in the next six months. At the moment, I suspect a great many departures will involve voluntary redundancy and I would not be surprised if many of those who have felt the ire of the public and certain Ministers will be minded to apply. I know that I would if in the same position. Morale cannot be high in these circumstances.
  • Precipitating the departure of the oldest and the most experienced, who also tend to be the corporate memory of the organisation, can only lead to mistakes and poor decision-making in future. In other organisations that have taken a similar approach, the result is the reinvention of the square wheel followed by a long process of shaving edges off before somebody is lauded for coming up with the round wheel! Hang on, I think there was something in the text books that we burned at the start of that revolution!
These problems could have been avoided if there was proper respect for technical professionals, and a recognition from an early stage that the events that are unfolding are unprecedented. So, if the blame game has to start anywhere, it must lie with successive Governments who have sought to cap expenditure on flood and erosion risk management. They now face three major challenges:
  1. Managing and supporting a recovery amongst the communities that have been so badly affected by the floods.
  2. Repairing the credibility of the water engineers whose reputations have been mindlessly trashed by irresponsible damnation of advice received based on the sound application of Government guidance.
  3. Crafting a long-term response to these flooding problems without jeopardising the funds available to respond to the dangers that have been identified, but which have yet to happen.
There are numerous lessons to be learned from these various events, but perhaps the most important one is not to dismiss solutions that require:
  • reinforcing planning policy guidance and decision-making where development in the floodplain is proposed;
  • changes in agricultural practices to make sure that water is not flushed from the uplands to the lowlands as fast as possible;
  • changes in agri-environment funding to promote better flood storage at a variety of points within a catchment; and
  • flood-proofing buildings and communities to minimise the impacts of future events.
The reality is that these events are just a harbinger of the future if climate change predictions are to be believed. After this winter, perhaps even some of the skeptics will start to recognise that there is at least a grain of truth about the process and implications of climate change, even if they will not accept that the causes are largely anthropogenic!

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