I often travel to London from the West Country by train and always enjoy passing through the Somerset Levels. I look at the farmsteads and churches perched on hillocks surrounded by miles of flat, green farmland and try to imagine what it must have been like when King Alfred was hiding from the Danes in the 9th century and these were island refuges in an inland sea.
Well, travelling at the tail-end of Winter 2014 I felt transported back in in time, as my train sailed across mile after mile of water and the hillocks really were islands! This was a glimpse of what the Levels were like in a more natural condition, before the fens were drained, first by the monasteries and then the Dutch engineers in the 17th century.
After the wettest winter on record, images of the flooded Levels and the miseries endured by the residents dominated our TV screens, followed by more of the same as the deluge affected the prosperous Thames-side suburbs of London, and other areas of the country.
Politicians were desperate to show their concern and demonstrate that they were in control. The prime minister said that “money is no object in this relief effort” and the Government came up with a raft of short-term measures, including grants for affected properties, business-rate reliefs, and a fund for farmers trying to cope with water-logged fields.
But once the weather started to improve and the sun to appear, the debate shifted from short-term clean-up measures to the question of how we should better protect ourselves from flooding in the future. A £100-million plan has been formulated to protect the Somerset Levels from flooding and involves some serious engineering, including a tidal barrage across the River Parrett, which will cost £30 million alone.
This got me thinking: a hundred million quid is an impressive sum but will it really be money well spent? I’m sure if you’re one of the unfortunate people who has been directly affected, no price will seem too high. But this raises three questions in my mind.
First: does it make any sense to carry on, Canute-like, fighting nature on the Somerset Levels and many other places that are subject to flooding, as climate change kicks in and sea levels rise? Element 1 of the NEBOSH Certificate in Environmental Management discusses how we might be affected by climate change. In the face of these impacts, many now argue that we should adopt more natural methods of flood management – for example, by allowing reclaimed farm land to revert to salt marsh so that flood water can be absorbed.
Second: who pays? When you look at the hard facts, despite the dramatic TV pictures, just over 150 properties were directly affected on the Somerset Levels, of which only 40 actually flooded. Does it really make economic sense to spend £100 million on fancy engineering schemes to protect a relatively small number of people and a score of subsidised farms? An alternative would be to simply stop protecting the Levels from flooding. This idea would be locally unpopular, to say the least – even if the residents were handsomely compensated! But it might be the best economic option, and would create a wonderful wildlife habitat.
There’s no denying that economic reality always kicks in. Soon after the initial spending announcement the Government clarified that only £20 million of the proposed £100 million would go towards the Somerset Levels scheme. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, announced in relation to funding flood protection: “The challenge for the coming months will be to identify which of several longer-term priorities to take forward, and their specific funding streams. Detailed assessments and business cases will be produced for different investment choices, including how they compare to other projects across the country’.
So, “money is no object”? Of course it is, and always will be!
In fact, the idea of a ‘managed retreat’ from nature has already been adopted as the best policy option in other situations. This week, the National Trust outlined its strategy for dealing with coastal erosion, which recognises that it is simply impossible to continue to protect the coast from erosion in certain locations.
Gwynedd County Council’s most recent Shoreline Management Plan also acknowledges that at least one low-lying coastal village cannot be defended from the sea indefinitely.
And so to my final question: who’s taking the long-term view? We really do need to think long-term if we are going to find the best approaches to flood management and other challenges that are linked to climate change. But if the recent flooding episodes have taught us anything at all, it is that our society really isn’t geared for long-term planning, and that both Government and Opposition are actually thinking no further ahead than the next General Election in May 2015!
Dr Richard Dalley is a Director of the sustainability consultancy Fairport(International) Ltd.