Flooding: shrug, raise the risks, hope for the best

The belated deployment of the armed forces to the flood-hit Somerset Levels this week brought respite to residents, but “the area has been badly let down by the Environment Agency”, says The Daily Telegraph. Prime Minister David Cameron admitted as much when he announced that dredging the rivers would begin once the floods recede.

The Agency claimed it could not afford the £5m needed; but it found £31m for a bird sanctuary at the mouth of the River Parrett. Its priorities have become “skewed towards conservation projects and away from basic maintenance”.

But we have to remember that the Somerset Levels are largely reclaimed land, “much of it below sea level”, says Lord Smith, the Environment Agency’s chairman, also in The Daily Telegraph.

The Parrett, which flows through the Levels, received the highest monthly January rainfall on record, and the Severn Estuary, with its high tidal range, backs water up the Levels’ rivers. Protecting such a unique landscape requires coordinated action from all the relevant authorities.

For the Agency, it will involve tough decisions. Flood defences cost. The basic principle is that central government, through the Agency, “funds national benefits and local people fund local benefits”. Lives and houses come first, but what next: town or country; front rooms or farms? “There’s no bottomless purse.”

A House of Commons Library report estimates that the annual bill for flood defences, now £1.1bn, could hit £27bn by 2080, note Jonathan Leake and Ross Clark in The Sunday Times.

Many experts say that parts of the UK are now “too expensive to protect and that it is wrong for taxpayers to pay large subsidies to those who have chosen to live in fragile areas such as the Somerset Levels”. While 25 square miles are under water, “only 40 homes have been flooded”.

The Environment Agency already spends £2m a year keeping the Levels dry – pumping out this month’s flood water cost £1m.

The other problem is that there are so many different authorities involved in flood defence (county councils, district councils, drainage boards and land managers) that it takes time to get work done.

But can we trust the government to act? asks Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation in The Guardian. Cameron was so struck by the floods’ “biblical” scale as to make a link between extreme weather and climate change.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has promised that “everything possible is being done”. Yet Environment Agency funding has been cut by 15%. The Agency stands to lose around 557 staff who work on flooding. And easing planning rules guarantees more future victims. Paterson is, in effect, shrugging, raising the risks, and hoping for the best. He “is overdue a change of position”.

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