It has taken six long weeks to uncover the real hidden reasons why, from the West Country to the Thames Valley, the flooding caused by the wettest January on record has led to such an immense national disaster. Only now have the two ‘smoking guns’ finally come to light which show just how and why all this chaos and misery has resulted directly from a massive system failure in the curious way our country is governed.
Because I live in Somerset, I first became aware that something very disturbing was going on back around the new year. As it became clear that the flood waters on the Somerset Levels were beginning to rise dangerously high for the third year running, I set out to find technical experts who could explain just what had gone wrong.
I discovered what I was looking for in the members of a small task force set up by the Royal Bath and West agricultural society, which from the mid-18th century had organised the effective draining of the Levels, after they were first reclaimed from a marshy wilderness by Dutch engineers in the reign of Charles I. These farmers, with long practical experience of working with the local drainage boards, along with an eminent engineer who chairs the Wessex flood defence committee, were in no doubt as to why in recent years the Levels have become subject to abnormally prolonged and destructive flooding.
The problem began, they said, in 1996 when the new Environment Agency took overall responsibility for managing Britain’s rivers. These men had been alarmed to see a sharp decline in regular dredging. The rivers have always been crucial to keeping the Levels drained, because they provide the only way to allow flood waters to escape to the sea. Equally worrying was how scores of pumping stations which carry water to the rivers were being neglected. And although the drainage boards were still allowed to operate, their work was now being seriously hampered by a thicket of new EU waste regulations, zealously enforced by the EA. These made it almost impossible to dispose sensibly of any silt removed from the maze of drainage ditches which are such a prominent feature of the Levels.
But all this got markedly worse after 2002 when the Baroness Young of Old Scone, a Labour peeress, became the agency’s new chief executive. Dredging virtually ceased altogether. The rivers began dangerously to silt up. The Baroness, who had previously run the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England, talked obsessively about the need to promote the interests of wildlife. She was famously heard to say that she wanted to see ‘a limpet mine put on every pumping station’. The experts I was talking to had no doubt that this apparent wish to put the cause of nature over that of keeping the Levels properly drained was eventually going to create precisely the kind of disaster we are seeing today. Their message as to what needs to be done couldn’t have been clearer.
First, they wanted to see a resumption of dredging those choked rivers. Second, they wanted responsibility for managing the Levels to be handed back to those local bodies which kept them effectively drained for generations, without having the EA constantly on their backs.
So compelling was their message that I conveyed to our Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, that he should visit Somerset to get a first-hand picture of what was to be done. He was as impressed by what these practical experts had to tell him as they were by how quickly he got the message. After speaking to other local representatives the next morning, he gave them six weeks to come up with a workable action plan. And if only he hadn’t then been snared into a media disaster, when unexpectedly confronted by a mob of shouting protesters crowding so densely around him that he couldn’t even get to the back of his car to don his wellies, he could have quietly returned to London having pulled off by far the most effective practical initiative yet to have emerged from this appalling mess.
Already, however, so much damage had been done by the excessive flooding, for which there could be no quick fix, that, as ever more farms and villages had to be abandoned, the man-made disaster escalated into a full-blown political crisis — taking on a further dramatic dimension as similarly catastrophic flooding began to threaten the Thames Valley.
We had the great and the good converging on those flooded Somerset villages from all directions: a visit from Prince Charles, carried along the floodwaters on an improvised throne; the hapless Lord Smith of the Environment Agency being yelled at by irate flood victims; David Cameron flying in by helicopter; Nigel Farage being regaled by residents in a local pub, Nick Clegg waffling as ineffectually as ever. With Owen Paterson rushed off to hospital for a serious eye operation, we then had Fatty Pickles trying to give the impression that he was now in charge, lashing out at Lord Smith.
But while this media circus and the growing crisis along the Thames have been occupying the headlines, assiduous researchers have finally been uncovering those ‘smoking guns’ which explain how this disaster has come about. The first was revealed by my long-time collaborator Richard North, a real EU expert who, by combing through scores of official documents, unravelled the story of just how Baroness Young had been able to get her way in shifting her agency’s priorities towards promoting the interests of ‘nature’ over those of farming and people.
A key part in this had been played by those EU directives which govern almost everything the Environment Agency gets up to — including two with which Baroness Young was already familiar when she presided over the RSPB — setting out the EU’s policy on ‘habitats’ and ‘birds’. But just as important was a 2007 directive on the ‘management of flood risks’, which required ‘flood plains’, in the name of ‘biodiversity’, to be made subject to increased flooding.
This was just what Lady Young was looking for. She had already been giving lectures and evidence to a House of Lords committee on the EU’s earlier Water Framework directive, proclaiming that one of her agency’s top priorities should be to create more ‘habitats’ for wildlife by allowing wetlands to revert to nature. As she explained in an interview in 2008, creating new nature reserves can be very expensive. By far the cheapest way was simply to allow nature to take its course, by halting the drainage of wetlands such as the Somerset Levels. The recipe she proudly gave in her lectures, repeated to that Lords committee, was: for ‘instant wildlife, justadd water’.
In 2008 her agency therefore produced a 275-page document categorising areas at risk of flooding under six policy options. These ranged from Policy 1, covering areas where flood defences should be improved, down to category 6, where, in the name of ‘biodiversity’, the policy should be to ‘take action to increase the frequency of flooding’. The paper placed the Somerset Levels firmly under Policy 6, where the intention was quite deliberately to allow more flooding. The direct consequences of that we are now seeing round the clock on our television screens.
The second smoking gun, which explains the other half of the story, and why we are seeing a flooding disaster not just in Somerset but also on the Thames and elsewhere, has now come to light thanks to the Whatdotheyknow website which specialises in publishing the results of Freedom of Information requests. The Environment Agency’s response to an enquiry as to why the Thames has also not been properly dredged since 1996 reveals that this was because the new EU waste regulations of that year made regular dredging ‘uneconomical’.
They made disposal of silt dredged from rivers by local landowners so complex and expensive that it became much more attractive to take advantage of the ‘financial incentives’ given to ‘conservation schemes’. This was exactly what those farmers had found on the Somerset Levels.
So, at last laid bare, has been the hidden background to our floods disaster. Aided by that wettest ever January, it has been brought about by a synergy between ‘green’ ideologues here in Britain and an array of legislation from Brussels which has to guide policy in every EU member state.
Even in Holland there have been fierce rows over proposals to dismantle some of the dykes which protect the 29 per cent of that country below sea level. But in no nation has this ‘green’ ideology found such a sympathetic response as in Britain, where the senior officials of the EA — 14 of them earning more than £100,000 a year — have long been more swayed by those Agenda 21 doctrines of ‘sustainability’ and ‘biodiversity’ than by any practical concern for the needs of people, homes, businesses and farmland.
The overwhelming lesson emerging from this disaster is that it has been made far worse than it needed to be by a catastrophic policy failure. When Lord Smith weakly tries to complain that this was only because rules set by the Treasury wouldn’t allow his organisation to spend £4 million on dredging the river Parrett, which flows through the Levels, the victims of the policy point to the Environment Agency’s willingness to see £31 million spent on allowing the sea to flood hundreds of acres of prime farmland on the nearby Somerset coast, to create another habitat for birds.
In Somerset alone, quite apart from the Thames Valley, the eventual cost of this disaster is already estimated at well over£100 million. If this cost also includes the drowning of countless ground-nesting birds, hedgehogs, water voles and badgers which the policies of Brussels and Baroness Young have made inevitable, then, even on their own terms, the case for root-and-branch reversal of such a crazily self-deluding policy becomes overwhelming.
But how to disentangle ourselves from this mess, when we are committed by law to obey those EU rules, is another problem altogether.
Christopher Booker is a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and was the first editor of Private Eye. He lives in Somerset.