Monday, 23 November 2009

Floods lessons to be learned

ENVIRONMENT secretary Hilary Benn was due to brief the House of Commons today (Monday) on the weather that brought chaos to the West of Britain over the last four days.
He may have expected an easy ride as the natural sympathies of MPs to the plight of hundreds of displaced families may have blunted their critical faculties.
But the representatives of the traumatised constituencies may be in angrier mood than he expected.
No doubt one hand will be clutching the begging bowl which may make it difficult to throw punches with the other.
But they will have been doing less than their duty if Mr Benn is not forced to listen to some of the very important lessons that need to be learned from the experiences.
It is tempting to think that the circumstances were exceptional. For a weather front to linger long enough for more than a foot of rain to fall in one area, as it did over the Lake District last Thursday, may be a once in a thousand year event.
But it may not. As Phil Rothwell, head of flood strategy at the Environment Agency, points out:
“The exceptional may become the norm with climate change. The evidence is that these energetic weather systems will happen more frequently.
“Climate change scientists say that very heavy rainfall in a very short time can happen almost anywhere in the country and we should expect more of them in the future.”
So it is important that the statistical novelty of the floods that still afflict Cumbria does not blind the Government to the need for its strategy to take into account the likelihood of more extreme weather.
The first obvious re-think is the propensity to build on flood plains. In nearly all less spectacular floods across the country it is the flood plains that get it worse.
This was a factor in the more dramatic floods on Humberside and in Gloucestershire in recent years.
Insurance companies are now refusing to provide cover for some properties built on them.
Local knowledge warns where they are, yet local authorities are under pressure to provide land for industry and land for affordable housing. This is true of developments around Cockermouth and Workington near the junctions of the rivers Derwent and Cocker. It was also true of Burneside outside Kendal which was a flood victim a day earlier.
So what is Mr Benn to do? Just ban building on flood plains.
Make sure the Environment Agency keeps a central register of all land with a proven track record of routinely filling with excess water in wet weather and give it the power to veto building on those areas.
Authorities will then be forced to seek alternatives and clean up brown, dilapidated and even poisoned sites, which will have a double benefit for the environment and wildlife.
Second, be more questioning of imposed protection status for waterways.
Local residents are convinced that the floods, the second in Cockermouth in four years, were at least partly due to the designation of the twin rivers as of special scientific interest by the European Union, in order to protect salmon spawning grounds.
Local Cumbria County councillor Eric Nicholson said: “That allowed English Nature to forbid the removal of gravel, which is all right in open country, but is no good near town centres.
“They said let the rivers find their own course, well it found its own course all right – right down Main Street. It is outrageous that people have had to suffer because of this useless legislation.”
Mr Rothwell said that no amount of dredging would have prevented the flooding at Cockermouth.
The agency has upgraded the flood defences for Cockermouth since the 2005 flood, which famously devastated Carlisle, but these were over-topped by the sheer amount of water, he said.
Third, there needs to be more strategic thinking about providing places for water to go before it reaches towns.
Coun Nicholson was angry at United Utilities for keeping nearby Thirlmere reservoir, which supplies water to Manchester, brim full since the end of August.
“If they had opened the sluice gates and let water out earlier then it would have had capacity to take some of the flood water when we needed it to,” he said.
Mr Rothwell had more sympathy with this idea, saying that up-country reservoirs or flood plains were being actively explored as an alternative to disfiguring towns and villages with ever more concrete flood defences.
Anyone foolhardy enough to venture into Cockermouth at the weekend would have seen the evidence of the sheer volume of water that flowed into the town.
It may well be that major flooding was inevitable. From the height of the debris, the Cocker was about 15 feet above normal, 20 yards wide moving at 25 mph - impossible to stop. On this occasion dredging the Derwent might not have made much difference.
But stopping to dredge rivers at the same time as allowing building on flood plains looks like a recipe for disaster as the good folk of Cockermouth discovered.
But there are optimistic signs that the authorities, notably the Environment Agency, are able to learn lessons from these disasters.
Mr Rothwell pointed out that the £38 million defences put into Carlisle after 2005 were one of the positive signs of last week’s floods, in that they had done their job. Carlisle escaped the worst of the damage this time.
This was despite the fact that the defence system was still not finished. Construction workers were actually diverted to plug gaps during the worst of last week’s weather.
He also said drain management by local authorities had improved, with constant clearing of blocked surface water paying dividends. This was a particular factor in Humberside’s floods.
Communication and warning tactics had also improved. It was noticeable that residents of Cockermouth who had to be rescued from flooded houses in 2005 say that this time they were moved before the waters struck.
The Environment Agency, however, needs to be wary of having too much reliance on new technology.
There were 46,000 text messages sent to people living in areas under threat and who had registered for the flood watch scheme, and the Agency claimed that 86% of messaged got through.
However in Burneside and Kendal, both of which were flooded before the deluge reached further north, said they had either not received the texts, or were told to expect the flooding six hours after it actually happened.
Mr Rothwell said that he would be investigating short falls in this system.
So, as well as the tributes and undoubtedly deserved praise for rescue workers and community spirit, there is plenty for Mr Benn to address in his speech to the Commons today of practical significance to the whole of Britain.

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