Monday, 10 February 2014

The flooding debate - the soup thickens!

My last comment on Facebook elicited various uncomplimentary comments about Eric Pickles that are best not repeated. It is perhaps worth reflecting, however, that Mr Pickles seems to have very little respect for strategic planning - the dismembering of planning guidance is illustrative. The approach taken yesterday also reinforces a growing impression that some politicians have a contemptuous approach to sound science.  Thus, I suspect in a few years time we will be looking at major Government expenditure to provide flood defences to ill-placed developments that have been fast-tracked to avoid any serious environmental and social scrutiny!

Moving on, I note that excerpts of the 2008 Parrett Catchment Flood Management Plan are being selectively quoted. I have not managed to access this document but I have found the 2012 version. In this version there is discussion of a 1% annual probability flood (in other words a 1:100 year event) and the use of parts of the Levels as flood storage. So, it is clear that there was already an acceptance (within the EA and by implication Ministers) that cost-effective flood risk management would be delivered by flood storage. I have a feeling that these sorts of events have happened at several points over the past 20 years. This year is different and as yet I have not found any indication of the return period estimate for the current flooding. We can be pretty sure it exceeds the 1: 100 year level, and in all probability exceeds a 1:200year event – which is generally the maximum that is socio-economically viable for capital expenditure. So the points made by EA Chairman Chris Smith are certainly consistent with the general principles of Project Assurance Guidance issued by Defra.

So, I think the general evidence points towards the reality that we are in an exceptional event and the playing of the blame game is utterly disingenuous by all sides. In the local context, it is wholly understandable that people will adhere to a view propagated by certain interested parties. At a political level it is always nice to be able to blame somebody else, especially where Government guidance is a factor behind decision-making. In this case, some politicians seem to be far more willing to shoot from the hip and pretty wildly in the direction of a supposed enemy. The tragedy is that their target is the science of flood risk prediction and management. We could avoid the current problems, but I doubt that even in the current situation the political masters would sanction diversion of long-term resources from the defence of London, York or Worcester – or perhaps even Windsor and Eton which seem to be at risk at the moment.

My biggest gripe lies with the press who seem to be doing their level best to stir up emotions and to propagate the blame game. Only this morning there was a resident of Windsor on Radio 4 responding to inquiries about the local situation. They reported that flooding normally occurs on the opposite bank but this time the problem was more extensive. When asked 'who do you blame' they immediately responded that it was the Environment Agency's fault and that they should have been dredging the Thames!

I fear rational discussion will not occur until some of the vested interests, and people with an axe to grind, are isolated by sound science and measured reflection. The big issue now is whether there is scope for a sensible discussion about future-proofing the main villages on the Levels and about the degree to which the public is going to commit extra funds on a continuous basis to allow the status-quo to be maintained. This is not going to be a one-off event, so maybe it is time for a shift in political approach and a wake-up call to all about the implications of climate change (anthropogenic or otherwise) – it is going to involve a combination of too much or too little water at increasingly frequent intervals! We are stuck with existing climate change and can only guess at the long-term situation because models are generally pretty poor at providing accurate estimations of future change - their accuracy drops off very rapidly regardless of how well trained and validated they are!

This winter's floods have the potential to pit the Somerset Levels against the Severn Valley and the Upper Thames in a mad rush for new Government funding and re-allocation of existing funds. That may not bode well for those coastal communities hoping for upgrades of coastal flood defences!

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