Failed flooding policy finds a scapegoat

Whenever a government loses control of the situation there has to be a scapegoat, and on the issue of flooding it’s not Sir Philip Dilley the Environment Agency chairman who resigned on Monday.  After his PR blunder of refusing to interrupt his holiday to visit the flooded areas he gave up his £100k position on the grounds that what had started out as a part-time non-executive post was now looking suspiciously like actual work. No, this winter’s devastating floods we are asked to believe, weren’t so much the result of government failings, but of an over concern for the protection of wildlife! “If we have to choose between people and wildlife, we will always, of course, choose people,” Sir James Bevan Chief Exec of the Environment Agency told the BBC at the turn of the year.

Like me, you may have been puzzled by this message and couldn’t quite see its relevance to what was happening across the North on that day, and the plot thickened to Bisto consistency a few days later when Liz Truss announced in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference that Defra will be allowing farmers to dredge ‘ditches’ without seeking permission from the Environment Agency because they ‘know their land best’. Her own experts say that dredging is useful for improving navigation and land drainage, but has little value in flood prevention. So again, what was going on?

Following these perplexing pronouncements, matters finally became clear on Tuesday, when the Prime Minister attended a meeting of the Liaison Committee, a commons committee that takes evidence from the Prime Minister on matters of public policy. On this occasion the PM answered questions on a range of issues including the recent flooding. Towards the end of proceedings Mr Cameron trotted out a well-rehearsed anecdote concerning “an epiphany” for him. His road to Damascus moment came in the village of Kelmscott in his constituency some time ago when he visited a site where farmers were being sued by the Environment Agency for dredging without permission thereby allegedly destroying the habitat of the local water voles. “At that moment, two water voles appeared on the river bank, almost in conversation, and in my mind, at that moment, the argument was settled,” he said.

Not exactly an anecdote that Peter Ustinov would be proud of but good enough to elicit polite laughter from his fans. But what was the point of the story? How in the PM’s mind had the argument been settled? My verdict is that the PM had concluded that there was no case to answer since two water voles had survived the dredging thereby demonstrating that nature is resilient and requires no special protection. In that moment, nature conservation was dismissed as so much red tape.

The Yorkshire Post a day later re-trumpeted the thoughts of our dear leader,

Britain needs an ‘attitudinal change’ on the issue of flood protection, which shifts the focus away from protecting nature and towards protecting property, Prime Minister David Cameron has said,

A consistent but patently false message orchestrated across government and the media. So in a PR sleight of hand, a veritable legerdemain, the PM has deflected the argument away from accusations of upland mismanagement of water catchment areas by the Environment Agency, farmers and grouse shooting landowners on to tree-hugging sentimental conservationists and a pair of homeless water voles.

* Phil Aisthorpe has been a Lib Dem member since September 2015 having previously been a life-long Labour supporter. In a previous life, Phil worked as an IT planning manager and business strategy manager with a leading UK financial services organisation.

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  • Peter Davies 15th Jan '16 - 12:21pm

    Dredging up-stream of course increases the likelihood of flooding downstream. This policy will see more homes flooded to give farmers less muddy fields.

  • It would be helpful to have a detailed list of the cuts to flood prevention scheme made by the Coalition Government post 2010 when Osborne/Alexander were at the Treasury.

  • Stephen Booth 16th Jan '16 - 9:24am

    Heard Sal Brinton speak very informatively last night in Huntingdon and she made the interesting comment that the Tories could have got 250m euros from Brussels immediately in flood relief money but they didn’t bother to apply. Can anyone say the reason why? Was Cameron frightened of Daily Mail headlines “PM goes goes cap in hand to Brussels”? Were there unpalatable (for the Tories) strings attached?

  • The cuts in the number of food safety inspectors and public health laboratories resulted in the ‘Horsemeat Scandal’ ……
    The resultant floods says much about coalition thinking as did the ‘Horsemeat Scandal’ (Guardian 2011..1,500 flood defence schemes were in line for capital funding between 2011 and 2015, but that number has been slashed to 356 in the new spending plans for 2011-12)…….

  • “Tories could have got 250m euros from Brussels immediately in flood relief money”
    So with our £55 million per day contribution to the EU, you say we could get back 5 days worth of ** our own UK taxpayers money back**? Well how generous of our masters in the EU.

  • @Debby Hallett (16th Jan ’16 – 9:28am) – There’s a view that parents know best about whether to vaccinate their children; they ignore or deny the impact of their decision on the broader issue of public health. I see a parallel with the view that landowners know what’s best for their land.

    An interesting analogy, the view I subscribe to is that parents should, in general, know best about when exactly their children are vaccinated and the approach to be taken (eg. multi-vaccine/individual vaccine). However, to do this effectively they need to be in possession of relevant (and trusted) expert advice and family medical history – without which they will have little to no knowledge of which vaccines a child should receive and when and any specific precautions they need to take.

    Hence, I think that yes we should expect landowners to know what is best for their land, but within the context of a framework developed by relevant experts fo rthat area. So if there is a need to retain water on uplands we should include this in the framework but not be too prescriptive as how they are to achieve this (ie. must plant willow trees), leaving the exact method used to the landowner. However, if the landowner proceeds to improve drainage, we have grounds to question their actions and if necessary take action against them.

  • A Social Liberal 16th Jan '16 - 5:13pm

    John Marriott, since you are obviously in the know – can you tell me what grouse moors have been created in the last twenty or thirty years in Yorkshire? With links of course.

  • @ Simon Shaw

    “Ministers have been heavily criticised for cutting flood defence spending by almost £100m a year after taking power, but this is the first time (some of) specific projects affected by the cuts have been identified.” report in The Guardian February 2014 following a Freedom of Information request from Somerset.

    There was (and is) a scheme for the Eden Valley written seven years ago after the floods in 2009. It has not been acted on in any way despite the fact we have had even worse floods in 2015.

    Who was the Minister in charge of enforcing the £ 100 million cuts referred to above ? The Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Which Minister was forced by a Freedom of Information request to release the details (only) in Somerset ? The Chief Secretary to the Treasury.Who was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury responsible for using the forensic scalpel ? His first name starts a D. and that was his job.

    Now if you know this gentleman has been acting to get the Appleby scheme put into action during his period in office, then I (and my 90 year old father-in-law who was deeply upset and vulnerable in December) will be delighted to give him full credit.

  • @David Raw – re: cuts and Eden Valley scheme

    Is there any evidence that the Eden Valley scheme (drawn up after the 2009 floods) if implemented, would have prevented any homes being flooded in December 2015? Note I’m not talking about mitigation but real prevention and that whatever actions the scheme identified had been taken prior to 2015 and hence were not only complete, but plantings (if any) had become established and hence could fully play their part.

    I get the feeling that many are in denial about climate change and that one thing the scientific models do agree on is that our weather will become more extreme and unpredictable; something that events in recent years seem to be confirming.

  • @ Roland That’s a fair and reasonable point, Roland. The honest answer is probably not in every case – but my beef is that five years have been lost as a result of the austerity programme practised from 2010 by the Treasury.

    Yes, the shelved schemes will have to be dusted down, BUT , a more profound study will be necessary to make them as stronger in the light of experience. I agree with you on the climate change deniers – which this Tory Government appears to be. In 2010 the then Treasury Liberal Democrat Minister has questions to answer.

    You may remember on “Have I Got News for You” Hislop, Merton and Mitchell attacked the Government over the floods.

    Hislop mocked Carlisle’s flood defences (like Appleby, on the Eden). “They say even the flood defences that the water came over worked a bit because if they had been lower would have come over quicker so you would have been flooded quicker without that – which I think was a comfort to a lot of people.”

    There was also a video of the Cumbrian MP and Environment Minister Rory Stewart which David Mitchell said was putting a “positive spin” on the situation.

    To much laughter Rory Stewart was heard to say in the YouTube clip that the flood defence “wasn’t breached,but what has happened is the water has come over the top so that defence has worked well.”

    You can judge for yourself if that was fair by watching the video on you tube.

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