Monday, 10 February 2014

Flooding crisis – the blame game begins

I once likened the august figure of Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to Jabba the Hut. I was not thinking of his shape so much as his general manner and demeanour, and the way he deals with people with whom he doesn’t happen to agree. It seems that Jabba the Hut has been at it again this weekend in the remarks he made on the Andrew Marr Show about the Environment Agency and their leader, Lord (Chris) Smith. It was an unedifying display of political bile.

As Chris Smith diplomatically pointed out this morning, the Environment Agency has been operating within very tight financial constraints imposed by this government. They were prevented from dredging the Somerset Levels by the strict limits that had been placed on their spending by their sponsoring department DEFRA, who in turn were constrained by the dead hand of the Treasury. In fact, the EA has been forced to make significant economies by the insane insistence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on cutting government spending to the bone. Staff numbers in the Agency have been unavoidably cut (and significant further reductions in staffing levels are planned), which was bound to impact on the Agency’s ability to carry out continuing flood defence work and, in particular, ongoing maintenance of existing flood prevention schemes. Ministers have been quick to point to the authorisation of substantial additional capital spending, but it is the cuts in revenue spending – spending that is vital in order to maintain existing facilities and equipment, and the staffing costs of servicing those needs - that has hobbled the EA, and prevented it from doing its job effectively.

So stand up, Osborne!. You, boy, are the miscreant who is ultimately responsible for this debacle. The plain fact is that government has to find enough funds to ensure that essential public services are maintained. If the Treasury feels it necessary to reduce government borrowing (and there are some very eminent and well-respected economists who have told us repeatedly that this is entirely unnecessary – we are in a very different position from some of our European neighbours in this regard), then the obvious answer is to raise more in taxes. We can’t have it both ways; if we want decent public services, we have to pay for them, and that means paying higher taxes. If we are not prepared to pay those taxes, then we shall face deteriorating public services. The extent of the flooding on the Somerset Levels due to the main rivers not having been dredged is just one example of the results of such a policy. Unrepaired roads, even perhaps uncollected rubbish, may well follow.

The trouble is that Bertie Wooster (aka ‘Dave’ Cameron) and his pals from the Drones Club really have no knowledge or experience of the lives of the people affected by their doctrinaire drive to ‘shrink’ the public sector, and reduce taxes (especially for those poor souls who were having to pay 50% on their top slice of income and are still forced to pay a 45% top rate). I rather hope that the recent and, unfortunately, continuing flooding crisis might perhaps persuade people, if not this toffee-nosed government, that we need to spend more, not less, on public services of all kinds, and that the present government is headed in entirely the wrong direction.



EMB said...

he fact is that water runs down hill to the sea. Once it gets down to sea level if it can't get to the sea then it spreads out where it can. Instead of dredging narrow channels, it might be better to widen the channels and provide more outlets to the sea, with flap sluices that prevent the rising tide from coming in and taking up the space. The people who wish to live in such low-lying places really should be left to deal with this themselves and if they were, central government need not be drawn in. Yes I'd like decent public services but I don't think I should have to pay for sorting out avoidable problems for people when those problems arise, honestly, from the lifestyle choices of those same people. The best bits of Somerset are not under water. Now this is a blog about planning. How many houses are still being built (with planning permission) in stupid places? Either the places where the water sometimes needs to go (floodplains) or in places blocking its path.

Anonymous said...

Some sense at last. Well said Mr. Goodall.

Anonymous said...

Dredging of the rivers will potentially have some impact on future flooding on the Somerset Levels (although how you prevent a floodplain/inland sea flooding as it has done for thousands of years is not clear) however given that it can't be done until the flooding has receded, it seems to be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Furthermore, there is no indication that the requirement for EIA will be followed in this case. The dredging works are certainly an operation on a scale that would fall under Schedule 2, para 1(b) of the 2011 Regulations. The works would almost certainly have significant environmental effects - e.g. if it were to prevent flooding that could presumably be counted as a significant positive! Given that much of the Levels are covered in EU designations (SPA, SAC, Ramsar etc.) I can't think of many more sensitive environments, and I am struggling to see why EIA would not be required for this operation.
Mr Cameron is suggesting that all of those sorts of barriers should be set aside and that the EA should just get on and dredge. There is clearly public and political support behind this but all of the potential consequences to the river environment of dredging should be considered. The potential for ecological harm shouldn't be ruled out. At the end of the day however, everyone should be held up to the same standards. Everyone else who wants to undertake major works of this type must go through the correct procedures to get their approval. If the Government or its agencies doesn't have to, what is there to stop others just going ahead with works without any consent (as some already have given the number of bunds appearing around houses). I assume however that the Government has decided that the risk of being challenged on the lack of an EIA is minor in this case given the public support for any solution to the flooding. It will be interesting to see whether anyone exercises the provisions under Article 6 of the EIA Regs 2011 to request a Screening Direction directly from the SoS.

EMB said...

There are lots of debates just starting about the extent to which public services should bail out (bad taste pun intended) people who make lifestyle choices, many of the cases involved will be tough, tragic, or heartbreaking. But water will continue to run downhill and to spread out sideways wherever it is blocked on its way to the sea. All of the flooded houses that were built since 1947 presumably have planning permission and some LPAs are still rushing to authorise developments in stupid places.

Evan Owen - Snowdonia said...

Somerset is a variation of an old name for the land of the summer people, they lived a bit higher up in the winter for obvious reasons. I'm told only 60 houses are affected by perennial flooding so yes the owners must be aware of the risk, even that man who had planning for a new build £1 million house knew about the flooding but failed to grasp the enormity of it all. I for one would not build a house on the banks of a river or a stream, or the sea because I don't like being flooded, not that I ever have been inundated in all my 60 years and counting(not a lot in the scheme of things) but the Bible has a story about a flood and our shores are littered with the remains of flooded communities.

RichardW said...

Bravo sir!


yes present day gov have not helped but lack of dredging goes back almost 20 years

Martin H Goodall LARTPI said...

There are very few people living on the Somerset Levels as a result of making ‘life-style choices’. The majority of those affected by the flooding are farmers, and it is not just their homes that need protection, but their farmyards and livestock and hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land. Other residents are there mainly to service the local economy, and they too are in many cases members of families who have lived on the Levels and Moors for generations.

The Somerset Levels are and always have been a managed environment (largely man-made originally). The trouble is that in the past 20 years, we have stopped managing them in the way we used to. The causes may be several, including a shift in policy as a result of the merger of the former National Rivers Authority with other bodies to form the Environment Agency, so that flood prevention no longer has the priority it had under the NRA. Forced economies are another potent factor, and have hit the EA particularly hard since 2010 (i.e. under the present government). Further cuts and staff reductions have not yet been reversed, and the government seems to show no sign of wishing to do so. So ultimately, I maintain my position that the buck stops at No.11 Downing Street (and No.10 must also take a share of the responsibility for the penny-pinching policies that have been and are still being pursued by this government). Allowing more capital spending by the EA is not the whole answer; they need to have their revenue budget and staffing levels restored, and arguably increased. In fact, substantial extra spending on emergency and other public services throughourt the country is going to be unavoidable, no matter what the government might prefer.

So far as dredging and pumping are concerned, this is a matter for technical judgment as part of the wider management not only of the Somerset Levels but also of their catchment area. Meanwhile, the situation in the Thames Valley is potentially far more serious, and underlines the need for well-funded and fully staffed emergency services and other public services, with a major role being taken by local authorities. They too need their budgets restored to sensible levels.

jebba the hut said...

Spot on! Concise and incisive analysis of the flooding debacle.
Is it too much to ask that the devastation wreaked by the recent flooding will give pause for thought to those who believe, with almost messianic fervour, that the profit motive and personal responsibility are all that we require to run a civilised society.
Private sector good, public sector bad seems to be the mantra of the current government - if we continue with this philosophy and cut public spending on services further, we will have to get used to more of the same. It will need a very large effort indeed by the "big society" to plug the gap left by drastic cuts to local government.

Moan Ranger Cumbria said...

What has not been discussed is the systematic dismantling of the planning system which denudes LPAs of the power to ensure developers make meaningful contributions to local infrastructure. Constant whining by the CEOs of building companies in the ears of ministers about the "bottom line" and "limited headroom", has now come home to roost. Moan Ranger Cumbria

Anonymous said...

The damage from fat head's comments are already clear to see. Some braindead moron on the news a few days ago who was waiting for his home to be flooded in the Thames valley had already started pointing the finger at the EA saying it should have dredged the whole darn river!

Under the flood guidance prior to the NPPF you used to have to do the sequential test and ONLY if this was passed would you consider applying the exceptions test. Under the NPPF and the technical guidance (which is hardly any clearer) this does not appear to apply any more as far as I can tell (someone please correct me if I'm wrong); some people seem to think that if you can pass the exceptions test the sequential test is a minor quibble. This is usually re-inforced in peoples' minds when the EA won't object provided the exceptions test is passed - they don't get invloved with the sequential test. Surely this is a weaking of what was already not a foolproof policy on flooding? If the figures on how many homes (or the rate of building) annually are still going up in flood risk areas (as published by Planning Mag online this week) are correct, we are still adding thousands of homes in these areas.

It will be interesting to see how the government defends its planning policy on flooding which stil allows it in certain circumstances. No doubt they will blame local government for implementing what is central government policy.

Martin H Goodall LARTPI said...

Do I take it that this morning’s anonymous comment mentioning ‘fat head’ was intended to refer to dear Uncle Eric? Tut, tut; how disrespectful. [Cuts mic to mask a snigger.]

I agree that dredging the Thames is hardly likely to do much good (although I understand that some dredging has previously been done, and it may have a minor role to play in the overall management of that river). I don’t think we have really got to grips yet with the issue of building on flood plains. But the current flooding crisis may lead to a more robust approach to this issue in future. It should not be assumed, however, that every place on the EA’s flood maps really is liable to flood. I have been dealing with a site in Somerset which is shown by the EA as being potentially at risk from flooding, but which has remained bone dry throughout the past two very wet winters, when there has been extensive flooding elsewhere in the county. There has in fact been no flooding anywhere in the area.

On the other hand, I remember that Waverley BC lost an appeal near Godalming just before I joined the council in 1982, and even had an award of costs made against them, because they had not been able to produce technical evidence to back up councillors’ claims that the land was prone to flooding by the River Wey. Those houses were flooded a few weeks ago when the Wey burst its banks, just as local people familiar with the area had predicted.