Cookie Notice

However, this blog is a US service and this site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services and analyze traffic. Your IP address and user-agent are shared with Google along with performance and security metrics to ensure quality of service, generate usage statistics, and to detect and address abuse.

Thursday, 20 February 2020


There's something wrong with our water management. It's all something of a mess, muddling along with the best of intentions but a woeful lack of holistic understanding. There is no simple answer, no pabulum. It's complex and it needs strategic direction. Here are some of the elements

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.

Faversham Creek

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.


Stephen J said...

What it is all about might not be the various edicts and commands made by regional or even national government, but rather the very same reason that we wanted to leave the EU.

Democracy and independence.

One of the main criticisms from even supportive ministers in regard to the EU has been its tendency to create rather shoddy "one size fits all" solutions to what it sees as its problems. Regardless of whether WE seem them as EU problems or not.

Most often the solution to a problem will be solved by local expertise, rather than world beating expertise.

DiscoveredJoys said...

I do wonder if there is a 'disillusioned' mindset which has contaminated the powers that be? Not necessarily a conscious attitude, just an unconscious 'acceptance' that Britain has lost an Empire, experienced vast industrial conflicts, is not as wonderful as we used to be, and the nasty plebs are blocking our progress to the Utopia we desire.

So many decided that we should join the EC/EU to dilute our disillusion in a wider new empire. However, in the practical world, the 'populists' do not share this disillusion and would prefer to get on and make things better rather that sit in encounter circles bewailing how awful things are.

And a huge part of this 'getting on and making things better' is to do away with stifling bureaucracy which exists *mostly* to provide reasons for not doing things.

Span Ows said...

Who gives permission for the building on flood plains? Final say is with politicians sometimes. Seems such a stupi thing so easily avoidable. I recall a few years back (when the Levels were doing what they always used to do) and the clear an dobviously solution wa sdo what had been done before with the dykes, ditches and drains. I even had a photo of a very floded field with the sign "120 new luxury homes here soon" on the edge of the field, which you would think would make them think again. Fucking dumb arsehole jobsworths all getting 100K + salaries is a major part of the problem but not all of it.

JohnM said...

In my opinion there are too many "Michael Gove's" in politics. Two faced, stab in the back merchants, willing to follow any line that the "Boss" demands, their ambition to succeed is all.

jim said...

Take a step back and look at DEFRA's motivations. Not to spend very much money and take a long time doing it. Add in a 'Green' motivation as another excuse for doing nothing and you have today's Do-Nothing-DEFRA.

Re-wilding and letting the river banks grow a-la Monbiot's Amazon is the last decade's fad. Which might work very well over 1000 miles of rainforest. But over five mile stretches of UK farmland interspersed with houses and a handful of saplings - ridiculous. But letting the river banks grow and never dredging means not spending any money.

And a bigger problem, UK land law. Way back local streams and ditches were tended by farmers and estate owners. They had a self interest in doing so and no need for mapping or legislation. Subsequently farm cottages and lands have been sold off for building, but no mapping and no legislation, you can fill in ditches willy-nilly. Parliament shows no sign of doing the mapping, advice and enforcement work - why? just look at the composition of Parliament and The Lords.

Right now there is a fuss and palaver, by summer it will all have been forgotten, back to doing nothing.

Smoking Scot said...

No expert I, just an observer.

I don't think our countryside is anywhere close to natural. Our penchant for constructing wooden ships for our merchant and naval fleets took an enormous toll on our native woodlands. Precious little was replaced and our planting of varieties of conifers may look okay and can be profitable, but their place in our ecosystem is very questionable.

WW2 encouraged people to grow their own, with scrublands cleared to assist in this. Metal fencing was melted and frequently replaced with brick walls that act in the same way of channelling floodwaters.

Even now trees and scrub is cleared to erect wind turbines. Also artificial are our grouse moors.

But what's unforgivable is our lack of maintenance of storm drains. There's one in Stockbridge where a very large metal flap should open when the water pressure builds up. It doesn't because it's rusted in place, meaning the water from Queens St. all the way down the hill just pours down the streets.

Just observations.

Raedwald said...

SS - Yes, I think many of the problems are very local, and historical. I bet that rusted storm drain is the council's.

There's also an excellent piece in the Telegraph by Owen Paterson that I wish I'd seen before I wrote this - he stresses that, given his experience in Somerset, the solutions are also local. Forget the EA, DEFRA, the MMO - the answer is local flood and drainage bodies.

Raedwald said...

... as indeed r-w stated in the very first comment above

Stephen J said...

Actually Raedwald, I set out to make different comment and veered off. What I originally meant to write has been touched on by SS above too.

Ans it was this: Some places that human beans have chosen to live are naturally uninhabitable for human beans. So what he do, being more adaptable than the modern socialist, is that we put on our thinking caps and ask some questions, one of which is ...

Do we REALLY want to live here?

If we answer yes, we then use that thinking time to adapt that uninhabitable spot, so that it suits us down to the ground. We do it in the knowledge that maintenance will be an ongoing project.

In the case of the Somerset Levels that Paterson mentioned, a return to just such a scheme after the last abortion at the hands of the EU/Environment Agency meant that "action this day" was the meme, and indeed the act. Whatever it was that they said they needed to do theRiver Parrott, they did, and guess what...

No floods!

Dave_G said...

The nine most feared words in the English language "we're from the Government and we're here to help".

Government haven't 'helped' with a single (in my memory) thing. Not. a damned. thing.

Any Government intervention has always been to introduce taxation (or fees), create non-jobs (that guarantee them a vote) and generally complicate (fcuk) things up for everyone.

They should be banned from 'offering' assistance. They should only intercede when they are asked.

JPM said...

Most of the worst flooding has been in upland valleys e.g. Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Pontypridd etc.

The Calder and Taff are rock-bedded at those reaches and were never dredged anyway. The buildings are Victorian stone, not new build. They are not on flood plain because there isn't one, they're on the lower slopes of the valley.

They have simply suffered record rainfall.

However, reservoir management needs to be reviewed. They should not be kept brim full.

Yorkshire water has closed quite a few, and so is heavily reliant on those left, though.

Action is needed at all levels and on all timescales.

Where is Al, folks are asking?

Span Ows said...

JPM, some bad flooding has been in upland valleys e.g. Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Pontypridd etc.

There, fixed it for you.

Not sure why the fixation with Wales...oh, I see, so you could be contrary as ever. You make valid points, the petty trolling point-scoring just detracts from them.

Anonymous said...

I live on a hill. The River Bourne (Dorset) is about 45ft below me and a quarter mile to the south running parallel to the road out front, which runs East to West where lays largest Lowland heathland in the UK. Good for drainage.


JPM said...

Yes, Span. Some. "Most of the worst" is "some", as I said.

Anonymous said...

Home Secretary pushing civil service to break the law.

Teresa had a point about 1933 and all that. Nasty party!

Sobers said...

There is an argument that more drainage, especially of farmland, creates less flooding. It goes something like this:

Open farmland has a certain capacity to absorb water that falls onto it. If that land gets saturated then all subsequent rain just sheets off the land into the nearest watercourses, and ends up in the main rivers pretty sharpish. This is what causes floods - rainfall onto already saturated land flowing immediately into main rivers and overloading their carrying capacity.

Thus the argument goes that rather than attempting to keep farmland wet, by neglecting drainage systems, we should attempt to keep it as dry as possible via good drainage, so that the 'heavy rainfall onto saturated land' scenario occurs as little as possible, and when extreme rainfall events occur the land has sufficient 'sponge' capacity to prevent all that rain ending up in main rivers within hours.

Up until the 1980s the CAP was still encouraging farmers to produce more food, and land drainage was subsidised (as a way to increase the productivity of land). Since the 80s a lot of that drainage has been largely abandoned or neglected, certainly not replaced, as farming is perennially short of cash, and land drainage is expensive. Environmental rules have also banned draining some land as well. So the speed at which land can dry itself out has reduced significantly. All it takes now is to have an above averagely wet few months, slowly get the land saturated over a 2-3 month period, then once that has occurred if we get a further heavy rain event flooding inevitably occurs. Which is what has happened now - we have experienced above average rainfall for about 4 months now, then we get a storm like Dennis, where it rains solidly for 2 days (which is hardly that unusual in the UK) and the rivers rise within hours.

If during that preceding 4 months (when it didn't flood) the land drainage had kept up with rainfall and had managed to keep the land still relatively dry and capable of holding more water, Storm Dennis would not have had the effect it did.

Its a theory, whether its realistic is for you to decide........

Span Ows said...

No JPM, "most" it isn't and "most of the worst" it isn't, so fuck off

John Brown said...

Having read that 10% of all new houses built since 2013 have been sited on land with the highest risk of flooding and that this figure is increasing is it not time that Parliament legislated that houses are not allowed to be built on such risky sites without these houses incorporating flood avoidance features, such as building on stilts ?