Put a Dutchman in the Environment Agency


The Dutch people has been commiserating with the British people being flooded, yet again, this past year.

Apart from the many times the North Sea inundated the Netherlands (the last time, 1953, inspired the Delta Works – a massive reconstruction and improvement program of our coastal defences, completed in the 1980s), we suffered massive river floodings in the 1990s from the Rhine (and its branch the Waal past the big city of Nijmegen) and Meuse rivers after heavy rainfall in the Ardennes, Alps and other highlands. In 1995 these forced a big evacuation in the heart of the Netherlands. These floodings were the reason for another massive, nationwide programme of restructuring and improving works, including taking account of Climate Change, under the Second Delta Plan commission and a national Delta Commissioner, who is an influential government advisor.

But being a Dutchman who pays attention to floodings elsewhere, I was struck in the past ten years by the frequency that people in Britain involved in, and victims of, those floods complained about two things:

  • negligence in dredging rivers, canals etc; and
  • even bigger negligence in city water defences, starting with a sewage system able to handle massive amounts of surplus rainwater or river water.

We Dutch know that those two tasks, if neglected, will make it much more difficult to keep water out, whatever its source.  Those complainants are dead right.

Those complaints come from a country where after the “Big Stink” in London of 1858, when Parliament was meeting right beside the stinking Thames, Victorian engineers installed big sewage works whose ample pipes were adapted to a growing population and industry. But being a pioneer can cause complacency and negligence.

Part of this negligence is understandable. Whereas most of the Netherlands (not Upperlands) lies below sea level, only 15% of the UK does so. Thus the sense of urgency about the risk of flooding is much higher, and much more broadly shared, in our population, administration and politics than in the UK.

The smaller area below sea level in Britain makes flooding appear to be a local or regional issue. The fact that the boss of your Environment Agency was a part-timer and was absent when the predicted rainstorms fell is a stunning illustration of the underestimation of what his job entails. Tim Farron justly compared his negligence with the commitment of his personnel.

With my compatriot and party colleague Henk van Klaveren (writing in The Guardian, 27th December 2015), I urge the British politicians not to let down the committed Environment Agency staff and the inhabitants of every constituency with a big river. Start a national Delta Plan reconstruction effort, integrating:

  • the strengthening (or replacement, redirecting) of dykes and other flood defences;
  • efforts at dredging and what the Dutch call “giving rivers space” (not building near them, but constructing basins for surplus water); and
  • renewal of local sewage and rural drainage systems, with government subsidies and facilities for their upkeep.

This means a nationwide policy approach, but the Dutch example also show plenty of ways of using a subsidiary system of decision making: relevant decisions about parts of projects being taken at the lowest possible administrative levels, with local democratic oversight. We even have an autonomous system of Water Boards specializing in water management. That way, the Environment Agency doesn’t become a superstate in a devolving British administration, but has to work in harmony with the local people and institutions concerned.

Including local democratic involvement also opens the way for NGO’s like the RSPB, the National Trust, NFU/farmers etc to, in addition to their national lobbying, get concrete things done at local level. And if they and government fall asleep on the job, it’s the duty of LibDems practicing Community Politics the Penhaligon way to start petitioning, agitating and “raising less corn and more hell” (American Populists, 19th century) to make them sit up, return to their offices and work places and get things done.

Here are some Wikipedia articles about how the Dutch do things:

See about the way the Dutch organized it in the 17th century:

For a 7-page piece by me about the British and Dutch history of water managements and their respective ways of doing things, contact me: [email protected]

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “the boss of your Environment Agency was a part-timer” the EA has a full time CEO and Dep CEO, the Chairman chairs the Board.

    Every River needs a flood plan. Some pass through urban areas where increasing defences would be difficult and these rivers need dams above the area to hold back excessive amounts and release it gradually. New builds need assessment for flood risk.

  • Dutch engineers were of course responsible for the draining of part of the East Anglian Fens in the seventeenth century.

  • Jenny barnes 12th Jan '16 - 7:41pm

    Can we have a dutchman for transport minister too, please?

  • Peter Galton 13th Jan '16 - 9:47am

    I think we could do well to learn from our Dutch friends. They knew that they had a major problem and sorted it out over the years. We seem to just patch things up till next time it happens.

  • I find it interesting that so many just don’t understand just what is the role of a chairman and the art of delegation.

    It would seem that the Environment Agency had actually done his job! Specifically recruited and built a committed team of staff who were fully capable of exercising the responsibilities delegated to them. So what is the best thing to do in these circumstances? Get out of the way and leave the team to it! Be contactable, but not be so accessible as to permit people the luxury of abdicating their responsibilities back to you.

    I’ve not seen any evidence that the chairman’s physical presence or early return made any difference to the decision making or work undertaken by the environmental agency staff.

  • We don’t need a Dutchman in the Environment Agency….WE know what the problems are….
    Sadly we are led by a man who instructs the Environmental Agency to ‘get rid of all the green c**p’ and whose view on spending is summed up by “There is ‘no conflict’ between fighting poverty and cutting benefits” ………..

  • Neil Sandison 13th Jan '16 - 2:10pm

    Bernard is so right .We are hopeless at managing and maintaining our water courses .we fail to use them as a national water grid to move,collect and store water for when we need it and where we need it .This is because we have not insisted upon a statutory duty of co-operation from and between the water companies .We have no national plan of flood alleviation .With a strategic plan you can then devolve down to the regions ,counties and districts .We can raise money through the community infrastructure levy from new developments for on going repair expenditure by pooling that funding at county and unitary level and prioritising that expenditure. There are good examples of more cost effective local delivery systems as opposed to large scale developments initiated by the environment agency.

  • I agree we should be campaigning for a national flood prevention scheme with local input to ensure that local variations are dealt with. For example in Somerset two years ago the local communities were demanding a better system of dredging for the Somerset levels. Now I live in Manchester local communities believe too much dredging quickens the flow of flood water onto the land beneath the hills. Two different causes of flooding but the misery is the same.
    However, the important thing is for Government to recognise that we now have persistent winter flooding over the country as a whole, even though each local area may not flood each year, and to take steps to prevent this happening.

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