Building on flood plains - reducing absorption
I've never known a mediaeval church to flood, however heavy the rain. The land on which they are built may only be a metre higher than the surrounds, and barely noticeable, but it's enough. The land on either side of the rivers on which there were no houses, grazed in the drier Summer months, held the winter rainstorms. Culverting the rivers to allow development, building on flood plains and paving surfaces in impervious materials on which to park cars mean floods.
The Somerset levels, newly dredged as a result of Owen Paterson's intervention, have not featured in the disaster news this year. Having said that, dredging is not a universal panacea, and many of the areas flooded from the recent heavy rain would be just as flooded if a regular regime of dredging had been in place. Despite the clear view of the Daily Mail that dredging is the universal panacea, it isn't. However, their story does highlight the regulatory difficulties, see below.
I used to take joy in exploring the little creeks, old wharves and bywaterways of the South East in my tough little Land Rover of a boat - one of which was Faversham. There's a speciality business there repairing, maintaining and restoring Thames barges that is clinging on by its fingertips, choked by a silted waterway. There's an upper tidal basin that used to have a swing bridge, now covered in reeds. It used to serve the adjacent Shepherd Neame brewery, with small coasters able to load beer direct from the cool stores. For twenty years a local group have been trying to dredge the creek and safeguard the economic and employment uses and the sustainability of a centuries-old human development here. Their most recent applications are salutary. They need to get ticks from Kent County Council, Faversham Town Council, Swale District Council, Medway Ports, The Environment Agency and the Marine Management Organisation. Last time I visited, they still hadn't managed to dredge the upper basin.
There are sensible measures that can be taken to undo our past misunderstandings of the best ways to handle water. Restoring upland peat bogs which act as natural sponges to hold water is good. Selective planting and land management in ways that hold water in the soil, in fields and hedges is good. Taking rivers out of narrow concrete culverts and putting them back in meanders in flood-able land is good - and all will have benefits for wildlife and for the environment. But we shouldn't be driven by the interests of the biosphere in crowding out human use from parts of the country that have been cultivated and managed for centuries. Again, rewilding measures are not a panacea.
One good example is the work on the River Quaggy in SE London. In Victorian times and in the 1960s it was forced into a concrete culvert and became little more than a storm drain. Today it once again behaves like a river, and the fish and the proverbial Kingfishers are back, as it meanders through the urban parks and green spaces on its course to the Thames.
|The Quaggy today|
The Daily Mail is quite clear - it's all the fault of the EU Water Framework Directive and Tony Blair, but in reality it's a little more nuanced than that. Ross Clark in the Speccie makes some interesting points, including
Flooding policy changed sharply in 1996 when the old National Rivers Authority was subsumed into the new Environment Agency. I don’t recall it being led by a single engineer in 24 years; its current chief executive is a social anthropologist.It's not just the EA. Though their eclectic interpretation of the WFD has given us 'Clearing the Waters: a compliance assessment methodology for marine dredging and disposal' - an exemplar of bureaucratic overkill it's hard to better. But it gets worse. In addition to the EA we have the MMO - the Marine Management Organisation, who tell us their mission is "(to) license, regulate and plan marine activities in the seas around England so that they're carried out in a sustainable way". So if your waterway is tidal, as Faversham Creek is, both the EA (freshwater and rainwater disposal) and the MMO (dredging of sea and briny waters) must be satisfied. Ross Clark has found the EA to be run by a social anthropologist; the two quangocrats at the top of the MMO are
Chair - Hilary Florek - Hilary is a strategic communications and marketing specialist with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors.
CEO - Tom McCormack - Tom has more than 25 years in public service, including senior positions across the Department of Work and Pensions. Tom is passionate about improving colleague engagement and leadership capability at all levels.So no engineers at the top of the MMO, either.
The waters of, erm, water management in the UK are brown and murky. The whole thing is not simple, and desperately needs a razor-sharp intelligence to re-order it all, a Michael Gove. The problem is that there are simply too few Michael Goves in government, and too many establishment messes such as this.