The Spectator

Troubled waters | 28 November 2009

Amid the wreckage of this week’s floods the most depressing comment came from a government scientist who called for a national register of bridges.

Amid the wreckage of this week’s floods the most depressing comment came from a government scientist who called for a national register of bridges. If we had a register, he argued, the relevant authorities might in future be better able to predict which bridges are likely to go the same way as Workington’s two went this week. And this — as well as blaming climate change — is how the government machine avoids a glaringly obvious problem.

Britain is not short of databases. On the contrary, the taxpayer is groaning under the weight of them. What the country is desperately short of, on the other hand, is decent roads, railways and bridges that will actually withstand the odd rainstorm. There is little point in creating a Domesday Book of crumbling arches if the government is not prepared to do anything to replace them. And having not done so during the boom years, there is precious little chance of it doing so during the recession.

The lesson of these floods, as with those of 2007, is that Britain is unprepared for abnormal rainfall. Shortly before the 2007 floods the Audit Commission produced a devastating report on the poor state of the nation’s flood defences: 54 per cent of flood walls, it concluded, could not be guaranteed to hold back waters of a level against which they had been designed to defend. This week, the results of this abject failure of government planning came pouring into the drawing rooms of England again.

Blaming carbon emissions, as ministers were trying to do this week, is a cop-out. With or without climate change Britain will be battered by extreme weather. It always has been. Yet far from preparing the country against deluge the government actually cut the flood defence budget.

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