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Why can’t we go Dutch on flood defence?

A fraction of the money we spend subsidising green energy could keep our homes truly safe from flooding

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

As the chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, observed this week, there is a bizarre dislocation between the government’s pronouncements on climate change and its attitude towards spending on flood defences. Only a month ago, David Cameron was at the Paris climate summit lending his weight to apocalyptic warnings of flood and tempest unless the world acted quickly to reduce carbon emissions. Yet with tracts of northern cities underwater, his government continues with a make-do-and-mend flood-defence policy which, never mind climate change, is incapable of dealing with the climate we already have.

While lecturing us on the threat of greater rainfall and rising sea levels, the government has reduced spending on flood defence. Every time we have floods, the Chancellor announces a few extra million, only to quietly slash funding once we have had a few dry months and the issue has disappeared from the political radar. This year, spending on river and sea defences — including capital expenditure and maintenance — will come to £695 million, a 4 per cent reduction in real terms over the past four years.

To put that into context, this year the government and consumers between them will spend £4.3 billion subsidising green energy. We keep being told that we cannot afford more money for flood walls and diversion channels, yet we are being forced to spend a far greater sum in an attempt to control the climate. Pursuing a policy of prevention rather than cure might be a sensible strategy with smoking-related diseases, but it is foolish when the preventative measure involves a grandiose and futile attempt to stop it raining so heavily and the curative one would consist of sound, practical measures to manage the flow of rivers.

A strategy to manage global temperatures through the control of carbon emissions — even if the shaky science behind it is correct — would only work if every country on Earth played ball and agreed to legally binding reductions on carbon emissions. As we found in Paris, few other countries will agree to this because they can see that it is economic growth which will save them from flooding and other climate-related disasters — voluntarily denying themselves sources of cheap energy will harm that growth.


In any case, we need enhanced flood defences, climate change or no climate change. The weather over the past month has been exceptional but — apart from the 12 inches of rain in 24 hours in one part of Cumbria, which set a record — it has not been unprecedented. You don’t have to look far around the walls of Carlisle or York to find notched lines marking the levels of previous floods which were nearly or just as high. Flooding has always been a part of life in many British towns; what has changed is the expectation of keeping dry.

The wealthier we become as a country, the better we ought to be at meeting that expectation. Transfer even a fraction of spending from the subsidy of renewables to flood defence and we could have a flood policy like that of the Netherlands, which in spite of having a quarter of the population of Britain has managed to find £1.9 billion to enhance its river defences. Diversion channels have been dug; areas of agricultural land are being used to create temporary reservoirs where floodwaters can be held back to prevent flooding of towns downstream; roads and houses are being raised or rebuilt off the floodplain.

In Britain, all the Environment Agency seems able to stretch to is a few raised walls. It is remarkable how many of the towns flooded over the past month — Carlisle, Cockermouth, York — had recently constructed flood walls which either failed or proved to be insufficiently high.

In Britain we build river defences to guard against a one-in-100-year event and sea defences against a one-in-200-year event. In the Netherlands, the figures are one in 1,250 years and one in 10,000 years.

Why does the government consider it acceptable that on average 1 per cent of properties in flood-prone areas are flooded each year? If one in every 100 properties every year burst into flames or suffered partial collapse, there would be outrage. Building regulations would be tightened, cowboy builders jailed. A flood can be just as devastating, yet the risk is treated as an occupational hazard of living near a river.

Not only are we failing to manage flood risk properly, we are condemning more and more people to live with the risk. In 2011, 11 per cent of all new homes in England were built in flood-risk areas. We have an incredibly restrictive planning system in many ways. Authorities will often prevent homes being built to avoid spoiling neighbours’ views, yet absurdly do not protect residents from the risk of being inundated by flood water.

For years, grim prophecies on climate change were used as an excuse to jack up fuel taxes. The danger now is that they are used to excuse the failure to deliver a proper flood-defence policy. The deputy chief executive of the Environment Agency, David Rooke, claimed today that thanks to climate change we are entering an age of ‘unknown extremes’. No we are not. The risks are well known; it is just that they have not been acted on thanks to penny-pinching and incompetence.


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