King Canute Cameron needs to be on the level with environmental change


Prime Minister King Canute Cameron’s headline grabbing “its not acceptable for people to have to live like this almost four weeks on [after post Christmas rains] – and I am not ruling out any option to get this problem sorted out” is a classic example of trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The record persistent rain these past months have brought heartbreak and turmoil for many in the UK, not the least for those in the Somerset Levels and the Thames Valley. However, these tragic outcomes have long been predicted and the political brickbat is little short of disgraceful. Especially so for a hard-pressed Environment Agency whose work has effectively been de-prioritized by the coalition government as it directed spending towards short-term economic measures to boost the economy and reduce government spending. We can be quite clear that this is the case – you only have to look at the Coalition’s Government’s pledges in its 2011 White Paper on Environment and compare it with the reality. ‘We will reduce the impact of land management on water by ensuring that pollution and flood risk are addressed at source… by identifying where land can be managed to deliver multiple benefits, including improving water quality, flood alleviation and biodiversity.’ HMG Government White Paper On Environment, June 2011.

In a previous blog I wrote about short-term policy responses including the proposals to loosen planning restrictions on house extensions; supposedly intended to help stimulate growth in the economy. Of course one of the follies of the policy would have been that it would have reduced open garden areas which can take up water during cloudbursts and so exacerbate flood risk; though this was not a significant factor in the governments decision to abandon the idea, it quickly disappeared as soon as its unpopularity with the nation’s neighbors became apparent. While in Somerset there is an angry demand for dredging which populist politicians are keen to leap on,scientists point out that this will only channel water faster to the coastal towns and increase flood risks in far more populated areas. Meanwhile the Environment Agency is scapegoated for an issue which is much larger than this level of response. Not only had the evidence for building environmental resilience in the face of climate change been accepted by government, the 2011 White paper on Environment also identified a key barrier stating that… ‘Past action has often taken place on too small a scale. We want to promote an ambitious, integrated approach, creating a resilient ecological network across England.’

David Cameron has conceded that he “strongly suspects” the abnormal weather is caused by man-made climate change, but how is it that he appointed a climate skeptic, Owen Paterson as the Environment and Agriculture Secretary charged with preparing, or adapting England for global environment change? Even the National Farmers’ Union has now conceded that measures are needed to reduce climate impacts. The problem of flooding is of course linked to how water moves across whole catchment areas. As Miles King explains in his blog the water reaching the Somerset Levels is significantly influenced by farming practices on the hills surrounding them where the pressure to grow winter crops has resulted in denuding the landscape and increased under-field drainage. This means that water (and sediment) is discharged quickly into the rivers exacerbating the problem downstream. This is a classical catchment-level stakeholder issue and among the many things the government should be doing is significantly increasing the emphasis on introducing climate resilient farming schemes. Here and in other flood-prone areas the ecological services that should be reducing the flood-risks have been significantly compromised. Farmers upstream should be having their subsidies aligned to ensuring their farming practices are designed to reduce flood risk downstream. There is a host of possibilities from better contour ploughing on hill farms to trap rain on arable land (even at the expense of loosing a winter crop), through to investing in more permanent crops which build up the potential for soil water retention. Perennial crops such as berries,orchards, vineyards and agro-forestry can all improve local water retention. Open areas of flood plain are part of the natural system which buffers flood surges, policies which work with this rather than against it actually make sense, but this means looking at agro-practices for that can tolerate flooding (I’m not joking when I mention water buffaloes – elsewhere their meat and milk products are high quality and high value and they are well adapted to wetland grazing). Flood plains need to be managed with the natural functions in mind, it is unrealistic to entirely protect them from risk and their natural role needs to be included in flood plan strategies at landscape level. Where flooding remains a risk within the management schemes polices need to also address local issues, there is an analogy here of the biblical parable of building houses on sand, local planning for property in flood prone areas needs to be clear; for example ensuring new builds have their ground floors above an acceptable flood-level and where possible existing property converted to be more flood resilient.

In the heat of the crisis the media are busily asking  everyone from valiant volunteers to the army ‘what more can be done?’, will they have the persistence to ask ‘why wasn’t the strategy for addressing these issues given the attention it deserves?’ The costs of cleaning up and replacing infrastructure will not be insignificant; roads under water for weeks for example will severely deteriorate. What will be the relative costs of the aftermath and insurance costs versus the investment costs in greener environmental reliance strategies which would significant alleviate the problems and bring other benefits to the environment such as enhancing biodiversity. Will the government learn the lessons and begin to put an emphasis on investing in ‘natural capital’ as part of its commitment to building our economic recovery? 

The UK is of course also required to meet European Environmental Directives. The 2007 Floods Directive adopted a new, proactive approach, requiring Member States to prepare preliminary flood risk assessments for all river basin districts by 2011, followed up in 2013 by flood hazard maps and to have flood risk management plans in place by 2015, in the light of the current circumstances it is fair to ask if England is on track? These initiatives are part of a wider EU Water Directive which recognizes that flooding is only one aspect of the risks around water supply, others include drought and pollution from over application of chemicals on agricultural land. All the evidence suggests that building ecological resilience will help address all of these risks at relatively low cost. There will be significant lessons to be learned out of the current flood crisis, not in the theory but in the practical application, one question mainstream media might be asking is how lessons will be incorporated into the UK’s River Basin Management Plans which, under the EU Water Directive, should be implemented over 2016-2021. What is clear is that if we only respond in the heat of the crisis we will not address the evident risks in either an effective or sustainable way. One ray of light may be that the scale of the problem made abundantly clear over recent weeks will help impel the Government and its agencies as well as local governments, private sector and individuals to see the social and economic importance of investing in environmental resilience. This requires the Government to show leadership in recognising that ‘business as usual’ politics are not sufficient to address future environmental security. Its time all the political parties look at the reality of climate change and its impacts for people and our economy. These problems will only continue to recur we need to place more robust, proactive responses at the center of government policy; living up to the rhetoric of the current White Paper on Environment will be a Natural place to start..


One response to “King Canute Cameron needs to be on the level with environmental change

  1. Good stuff Bob, in addition to the buffaloes on the flood plain, the beavers upstream may also be good to see return.

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