Somerset flood spending 'driven by politics', say experts

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

  • Published
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Much ire was focused on the Environment Agency, but were their policies right all along?

It's nearly a year since TV screens were filled with furious locals protesting at the failure to drain the Somerset Levels.

They enlisted the outspoken support of their MP, stirred a political crisis, and got local flood management priorities overturned.

At the time, some warned that the Levels had attracted disproportionate attention as more populous areas of the country also faced floods.

Now the authors of a Royal Society report on resilience to extreme weather have told BBC News that they believe the campaign to protect the Levels prompted politics to override science.

They say those resident on the Levels may have to get used to living with floods, and they question whether investment to protect farmland is the best use of public money.

Some local farmers have reacted angrily, saying the academics fail to understand the complex geography of the Levels, and arguing that the water management system installed in the 1960s should be maintained.

But experts said that in a world of climate change, people must reconsider previous expectations for managing land.

The two flood experts on the Royal Society resilience report were asked by BBC News how global lessons might be applied to Somerset.

One, Prof Paul Bates from Bristol University, said: "There was completely disproportionate attention on the Somerset Levels. About 150 homes were flooded compared with 6-10,000 nationwide. Local farmers lobbied very effectively, seized the agenda and got the Environment Agency to overturn its policy of not dredging.

"But the agency's policy was the right one. This is a massive seasonally-flooded wetland and dredging would have made only a marginal difference. It could even make matters worse if it shunts the water somewhere else.

Image source, PA
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Climate change means we must get used to more extreme weather, scientists argue

"There's huge demand for flood protection in the UK. It's not cost-effective to use public money protecting agricultural land.

"We should be looking for greater resilience - perhaps by re-routing transport links, or making individual homes flood-proof, or maybe raising roads if that proves cost-effective."

"In the end," he said, "we may have to compensate people living there to move away completely" - although he emphasised this was a personal view."

A co-author, Prof Rob Nicholls from Southampton University, said: "The flooding of the Levels looked impressive - but most of the area flooded was agricultural land. You would be better investing in protection for London, Portsmouth or Hull where there are many more people facing recurring problems.

"People think, hey - I've got a right not to be flooded. But we can't afford to think like that. Some places you need to learn to live with water, accept mentally that it will flood… or just pull out."

The approach of the Royal Society experts was endorsed by Prof Georgina Mace, of University College London, the Royal Society lead author.

But their comments have provoked understandable anger in Somerset. One farmer, James Winslade told me: "These so-called experts haven't got a clue what they are talking about. We are used to being flooded - but we don't expect to get ignored for so long."

I visited the Levels with another farmer, Heather Venn. She told me: "This part of the river has been dredged and they've put the silt on to the side of the bank. It's made a difference already.

"We certainly haven't gone underwater yet with all the rain we've had and I know we won't over the next couple of months… because there's a General Election coming up and the pumping's going to happen."

Ms Venn did eight interviews in a day at the height of the media storm over the Levels. She insists that locals gained public sympathy because it was clear they could have been helped with simple dredging. Some of their land was underwater so long, she said, that the grass had become a crust of sludge.

"If this system had been maintained at its design level in the sixties we wouldn't have had the devastation - and that's why the media were in here," she said.

Prof Bates countered: "All flooding is avoidable - just at what cost?" He says people have become attached to a landscape created when the UK was on a drive to increase farm output. A re-think was needed at a time of climate change and reduced government spending, he said.

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Not everyone agrees that dredging makes much of a difference

Ms Venn said dredging had a large effect for a small input. She said people did not realise if the Levels were not protected, then the towns of Bridgwater and Taunton would become more vulnerable to floods.

An Environment Agency spokesman said the towns could be protected independently from the Levels. He said it has cost an extra £10m to dredge the rivers and improve local defences, which prior to the floods were further down the queue of national priorities.

He said Somerset was towards the bottom of the list of counties in the South-West based on the number of homes flooded last winter. Around 180 homes were inundated in Somerset (about 150 in the Levels), compared with more than 400 in Wiltshire.

But governments of course, are swayed by politics. A Defra spokesperson told us: "Last winter was the wettest in 200 years, which took its toll on flood-prone communities such as Somerset. That's why we provided additional funding to dredge the rivers Parrett and Tone - this will help the water levels reduce quicker in the event of another flood.

"It is vital that we protect people and property from flooding, including farmland, which is the backbone to our food and farming industry - and worth £97bn to the economy."

The academics say politicians around the world need to look at flooding issue in the round: farmers with upland fields must slow the flow of water from their land and maybe change the crops they farm.

They recommend that farmers also stop allowing fertilisers to run into ditches and stimulating the growth of clogging weeds.

And the report authors say local authorities should stop granting permission for homes on flood plains - especially bungalows; homes that have been flooded should be built back with concrete floors and raised electricity points.

They also suggest people will have to accept that they may be flooded in exceptional circumstances.

These changes are an academic's wish-list. Whether they are deliverable in a world of politics is a different matter.

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