November Daily Blog 27: The rain came down and the floods came up …. but who is to blame for the damage

Once again floods are headline news.  About 800 homes flooded in South West England over the weekend.  In north Wales residents in St Asaph have been evacuated as the River Elwy floods, train services to Holyhead disrupted and roads closed. As I type there are altogether about 2 Severe Flood Warnings (relating to the River Elwy) and 400 Flood Warnings and Flood Alerts on rivers in England and Wales listed on the Environment Agency web site.

Once again the media is playing the blame-game. Why haven’t flood defences been built?  Why are flood defences which have been completed not working? It’s happened here before, why haven’t ‘they’ done something about it?  The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has denied claims that talks between the British Association of Insurers and the government on a future deal for insuring homes at risk of flooding have reached “crisis point.”  Which probably means that they are.  Government amateurs playing hardball with the insurance industry can have only one outcome.

Scientists have for many years been warning of the possibility that one of the likely effects of global climate change on Britain will be increased frequency and volume of rainfall with consequent increased frequency and severity of flooding.  So why is there the annual ritual of repeated arguments and headlines?  Same questions.  Same question-avoidance.

The probability, close to certainty, is that there will be floods and properties affected somewhere in Britain every year.  Protection against floods likely to occur once in 100 years is expensive but just about affordable on a rolling programme.  Unfortunately the effect of increasing severity of storms and therefore of more severe floods means that what are classed as ‘once in 200 year’ floods are becoming more common.  The cost of protecting against them is unaffordable.

A big part of the problem is that much development is in the wrong place, it’s on flood plains. Who is to blame for this?  Here are some likely candidates.

Housebuilders.  It is cheaper and easier to build and sell houses on flat greenfield sites than on sloping and ‘brownfield sites so company profit margins are higher and easier to guarantee. Therefore for many decades houses have been built on floodplains.  Housebuilders argue that they have to get planning permission so all relevant environmental factors are taken into account …. so it’s not their fault.

Local Planning Authorities are frequently blamed for granting permission for development on flood plains in defiance of common sense and Government planning guidance.  Wide ranging consultations are carried out and, among many others, the views of the Environment Agency are sought.  Though sometimes culpable, in very many cases planning authorities reject planning permission for housing on floodplains on the written advice of the EA only for it to be granted on appeal …. so it’s not their fault

Planning Inspectors frequently grant permission for floodplain development previously refused by the planning authority.  The inspector can only assess an application on the basis of the evidence put before him.  Verbal evidence carries more weight than written because it can be ‘tested’ under cross examination by highly skilled and highly paid barristers. Very rarely, if ever, does the Environment Agency attend an inquiry in support of its written advice …. so the Inspectors are not to blame.

The Environment Agency is the only real authority on rivers and flooding in Britain, advised on the drafting of Government guidance on development on floodplains, and advises local planning authorities in writing on individual applications.  But it does not give verbal evidence at Inquiry thereby shooting itself and the whole planning process in the foot.  The reason it doesn’t attend inquiries is because of lack of resources ….. so it’s not their fault.

The Government holds the public purse strings so is responsible for allocating funds to the Environment Agency.  It has to balance the books but more importantly it wants to win the next election and keeping taxes low is a priority in that endeavour.  This is true of both major political parties but is exacerbated by ‘small government’ policies.    As an aside it is reckoned that one factor in Obama’s victory in the US presidential elections was his opponents stated ambition to drastically reduce funding of FEMA which did such sterling service when Hurricane Sandy struck.  The Government argues that the public want low taxes ….. so it’s not to blame either.

The Public, you and me, want the penny and the bun, unfeasibly expensive flood protection and low taxes.  We need to make our minds up.  It will not be offered as such by Government of whatever persuasion but the straight choice is between higher taxes or more flooding.

And we need to make all those bodies which claim that they are not to blame, which say that it’s somebody else’s fault, shoulder their portion of responsibility.

Me, I made sure I bought a house on the side of a hill.

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