Milder than a year ago (and my heating bill is lower as a result, which is nice), the UK winter has been associated with a long period of rain. Parts of the UK have suffered heavy flooding such as in the southwest, as in Somerset. The floods again raise the issue of what ought to be the way we deal with them. Absent any kind of powerful government, I guess one obvious response would be that insurance premia would reflect the risks of living in a flood plain, and so this would prompt responses such as people building homes in different ways – such as a modern form of “stilt,” maybe – and moving to higher ground, or encouraging some sort of collective, but voluntary effort to abate flooding risks, such as creating funds to pay to put levees on rivers, or dredge them regularly, etc.
We are where we are, however. And if you think a government has certain very basic, narrow responsibilities, defence – one of the core functions – should perhaps include defence against certain types of natural catastrophe, albeit not an open-ended commitment; such a move should also incentivise local efforts, rather than prevent them. Which is where the UK Environment Agency’s recent behaviour comes in.
In the Spectator Coffee House blog, Charles Moore weighs in with an article that argues that much of the problem is that the EA has, over the past couple of decades or so, changed its approach to flood control to one where it seems to believe in benign neglect. It is possible to see a form of environmentalistic anti-modern civilisation mindset at work here. No more arrogant Victorian attempts to tame nature by dredging rivers, pumping out water systems and the like. And Moore cites the views of a recent head of the EA, which I think gets to the heart of the change:
The Environment Agency’s opposition to dredging is reported, but not explained. Poor Chris Smith, the current chairman, gurgles inarticulately as if the floods were closing over his head. The answer, as with so much in the management of the environment, is ideological. Especially under its former chief executive, Lady Young of Old Scone and New Labour (I have made only half of that title up), the EA has seen human activity as the enemy. Lady Young has been quoted in Parliament as saying that she would like to place limpet mines on all the old pumping stations to get rid of them. If people are the problem, you wonder why the EA employs more than 11,000 of them. Without human intervention, the Somerset Levels would become an inland sea. Perhaps that is what the EA wants.
I think maybe that it is what the EA wants, not that such an organisation could perhaps say so bluntly lest it provoke so much public anger that its staff would be sacked and leadership replaced. But even if you don’t go in for conspiracy theories (and I don’t) you might wonder whether the ideological tilt of the EA fits with those who actually want such disasters not to be averted because it will be used as handy evidence of Man-made climate change. Pictures of vast floods across parts of the UK will, I can bet, be used by the alarmists to justify their arguments that Man is wrecking the climate and so we need yet more windmills and all the rest of it. Much easier to do that rather than go to the boring effort of dredging rivers and undertaking civil engineering projects to reduce the flooding risks in the first place.
Another thought that strikes me as if the EA really has taken some sort of policy switch and decided that old pumping stations should be destroyed or left idle, who exactly approved of this policy? Was there any public discussion of this? Who is, or should be, held accountable for it?
Meanwhile, here is an article by the founder of the Glastonbury Festival, who, I suspect, can see the commercially devastating impact of the EA’s position. And a similar call for change in the local media.
As Moore says, the EA has over 11,000 staff. It is about time that organisation began to become part of the solution of flooding risk, not an active and foolish contributor towards it.