Where are the engineers? Whenever climate change comes up we hear from ecologists, activists and the odd scientist. But engineers? The very people we need to solve problems seem to be shut away in a box while school kids and dopey vegan campaigners are handed a megaphone with which to tell us the planet is going to die unless humans go back to pre-industrial poverty.
This week’s floods are a prime example of our anti-engineering age. Hundreds of homes have been inundated with water, while several flood defences have failed, even though they were only recently installed. One might think the Environment Agency – the national body responsible for food defence in England – would be asking what is going wrong. Instead, a sneak preview of its National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy, for publication in the spring, reveals its real priorities. Apparently, because of climate change it isn’t worth bothering with much in the way of flood defences any more. Instead, ‘we need to move from the concept of protection to resilience’. It means we should install ‘hard flooring’ and ‘raised electrics’ so you can move back in a little sooner after your house has been flooded.
We have an impressive water infrastructure built over many centuries in the UK. Around my way, in the Fens, we have the Bedford Washes, a 23 mile-long engineered floodplain flanked by the Old and New Bedford Rivers, terminating in a vast sluice gate at Denver in Norfolk. It was built by hand in the 17th century – partly by my ancestors, who came over from the Netherlands for the work – to channel vast amounts of water away from the River Ouse so that the Fens could be drained. The system still works perfectly, which is why whenever we have flooding elsewhere, the lowest-lying part of the country is spared.
The Prime Minister loves an infrastructure project, and one he must be familiar with is Hambleden Lock near his old constituency of Henley – a thunderous weir, one of many hundreds to have been built over the centuries to civilise the flow of our rivers. Then there are the UK’s great sea walls on the coast, some of which go back to Roman times and others which helped create the promenades at the heart of our Victorian seaside towns.
We were still water-engineering until recently. One of the last significant works to be completed was the Jubilee River in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, a seven mile-long flood-alleviation channel around Maidenhead and Windsor, completed in 2002. But then the proper engineering stopped and now all we get are a few miserable mobile flood walls which have to be screwed together whenever it rains heavily. Dredging has ceased along many rivers. Building sea defences has been dropped in favour of a policy of ‘managed retreat’ – i.e. giving up.
Flooding policy changed sharply in 1996 when the old National Rivers Authority was subsumed into the new Environment Agency. I don’t recall it being led by a single engineer in 24 years; its current chief executive is a social anthropologist.
Some things proposed by the Environment Agency to prevent floods are sensible, like restoring upland peat bogs so they can store more rainwater and slow its passage into rivers. Nor is the Environment Agency to blame for the meanness of the flood defence budget. In spite of an extra £4 billion promised in 2019, this year’s central government budget for construction of new defences and maintenance of existing ones is currently just £815 million – a tenth of the subsidies for green energy. It is about one per cent of total spending on infrastructure.
Maybe river and coastal defence gets starved of cash because it sounds unsexy compared with high speed trains. But there is a fantastic amount we could get built for relatively little. One of the few sea defence projects which is getting built – thanks to the owners of the Bacton gas terminal in Norfolk, which was in danger of falling into the sea – is a Dutch-engineered beach ‘recharge’ which involves sucking sand from sandbanks way out to sea and pumping it onto eroded beaches. It is what they do in the Netherlands so they don’t have to abandon large parts of the country, a quarter of which lies below sea level. For £20 million, the Norfolk project will protect four miles of coast for decades.
What about a flood alleviation channel around York, which is built on a vulnerable confluence? The Spanish did it in Seville after devastating floods in 1960, and the city has been dry since. What about tidal barrages for the Thames, Severn and Humber, combining flood defence with vast quantities of hydroelectricity? If the Dutch could protect Amsterdam from tidal surges in the 1930s by cutting off the Zuiderzee with the 20 mile-long Afsluitdijk dam, surely we can protect our cities.
Rising sea levels – to the tune of 3mm per year – are the one indisputable climatic trend causing difficulty in Britain. We can either sit by and watch as parts of the country crumble into the sea or we need to fall back in love with big engineering.