The politics of flooding in the UK

The heatwave sweeping the UK has been making headlines for weeks, but the Met office has today issued a warning that parts of England and Wales could soon see "intense downpours" and may even face flooding.

In this excerpt from our latest white paper created in conjunction with New Civil Engineer, Martin Lambley, Wavin's Product Manager for Foul, Utilities & Water Management, looks at the politics of flooding.

Flooding becoming increasingly common in the UK

The Met office today issued a warning that parts of England and Wales could soon see “intense downpours” and may even face flooding.

Torrential rain and potential floods might be in stark contrast to the bright blue skies and sunshine we’ve seen since late May, but the UK is no stranger to extreme weather conditions.

Less than 18 months ago, the Daily Mail published aerial photographs of the devastation and “vast flooding” across Cumbria caused by Storm Desmond.

The Daily Mirror said Britain had been “plunged into chaos”, with troops called in and hundreds left homeless, and it wasn’t just the tabloids whose attention was fixated on the flooding in early December 2015 – the Guardian also reported that 60,000 homes were without power and many were lacking clean water.

Beyond those people whose homes and businesses were directly affected by flooding, engineers were required 24 hours a day on the railway north of Carlisle station, with part of the West Coast Main Line temporarily closed. Road bridges were also damaged.

This event was not a one-off. The start of 2014 saw a raft of news coverage about flooding in the Somerset Levels after storms battered the South West and left thousands of hectares of land under water.

Disruption caused by flooding

The Met Office says the effects of the winter storms and flooding of 2013/14 included flight cancellations, thousands of homes without power over Christmas, damage to historic structures and even fatalities.

In November 2010, more than 100 properties in Cornwall were flooded, while the A30 and the railway from London to Penzance were closed. The Met Office notes that the Eden Project attraction was also “badly affected”.

You could look further back at the flooding of 2005 or 1998 or 1952, but the fact is clear: storms and prolonged periods of rainfall are relatively common in this country, and they bring volumes of water that present a significant problem to communities built in many of our geographies.

Insufficient flooding defences exacerbate the problem

The effects of flooding cause despair and misery on a scale that makes the front pages of newspapers on a fairly regular basis. One of the most common complaints at these times of crisis is that not enough appears to have been done since the last flood.

A Daily Telegraph editorial comment piece in December 2015 (soon after our Big Debate on whether the UK would be ready for the next big flood) said that multi-million-pound flood defence schemes in Cumbria had been easily been overwhelmed by Storm Desmond.

It added that other plans to enhance flooding defences had been abandoned for financial reasons.
“That saving is now surely revealed to have been a false economy,” said the paper, “since the taxpayer must help meet the bill for damage that could have been mitigated, if not prevented entirely”.

Raising awareness of the dangers of flooding

Indeed, history shows us that floods can damage careers just as easily as they can ruin houses.
Early last year, Environment Agency chairman Sir Philip Dilley was moved to resign in the wake of a media outcry over the fact that he was in the Caribbean during that winter’s UK floods.

An initial statement from the Agency had said Dilley was at home with his family as the waters rose. “My wife is from the Caribbean and when I am there I feel at home,” he later clarified to the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee.

Aware of the incendiary potential of public and media opinion on flooding matters, politicians swarmed over the Somerset Levels in 2014, leading the Huffington Post to run a gallery on “flood chic”.

“Britain’s soggy politicians have been pioneering a new look, a stylish parade of rich white men surveying the flooded counties of southern England,” said the website.

It was satirical, of course, but it did highlight the extent to which ministers and other leading figures recognise the need to be seen and heard when floods make the headlines.


Lessons learned from flooding in Somerset

After the drenching of the Somerset Levels, a huge pumping operation was ordered and marines were drafted in to protect property. More than £20M was set aside for a flood prevention plan, which included dredging of 8km of the rivers Tone and Parrett.

On 12 February 2014, David Cameron announced a series of measures for people affected by recent flooding including £5,000 repair grants for home and business owners, a £10m fund for farmers with waterlogged fields and a commitment from banks to support affected people.

After visiting Somerset personally, Cameron was sure to express the seriousness with which flooding was being taken by the government.

“Whether it is extra pumps and sandbags, a commitment to dredging in Somerset, deploying the military to shore up flood defences and provide additional support for local emergency services, we are taking, and will continue to take whatever steps are necessary,” he said.

Will there be calm after the storm?

There is a troubling implication of this rush to provide funding and support to flood-hit communities that make headlines, perhaps best summed up by the experience of Boston in Lincolnshire, where, on 5 December 2013, storms and a tidal surge led to flooding that affected 579 homes. But you may not be aware of that, as the media coverage was not as intense as for some other events.

“The night Boston flooded, Nelson Mandela died,” a spokesman for Boston Borough Council told New Civil Engineer in early 2014. “We have not had the sort of media coverage [that Somerset has].”

Proposals for a £100m Boston Barrier flood defence scheme had been delayed while the scheme promoter sought advice from the Treasury for ways to minimise costs.

Earlier this year there were fresh fears that there would be more flooding, while construction of the barrier had still to get underway.

So is flood defence only a priority when the headlines demand it? Is attention to such a critical, emotive issue so easily distracted?

The Conservative Party returned to power in 2010 after a long wilderness. One of Cameron’s favourite mantras was the failure of Labour to “fix the roof while the sun was shining”.

This was a metaphor for economic wastefulness, but perhaps the latest crop of MPs should consider a more literal meaning. This country cannot afford to forget the critical importance of preparing for the next bout of rain, just because the storms have temporarily receded, and the sun has come out.