We really need to get this story about rivers and flooding straight


That there's terrible flooding in the North of England is true. But before we decide what we're going to do about prevention in the future we do need to work out why there is terrible flooding. And here there's two very different tales. One is that this is climate change and so we had all better stop driving anywhere and huddle in the gloaming of low wattage lamps as we proceed, full speed, to the middle ages. The other is that the bureaucrats have been deliberately designing the flow of rivers so that floods do occur. We are not so cynical that we would insist that the second explanation must be true just because bureaucrats. We are sufficiently cynical to think that it could be the correct explanation.

Here is one such bureaucrat on the BBC:

Speaking to Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Rooke said the UK was moving from a period of "known extremes" of weather to one of "unknown extremes" - something which a government review of flood defences would consider before reporting next summer. Asked if the UK needed a new response to flooding, he said: "I think we will need to have that complete rethink and I think we will need to move from not just providing better defences - and we've got a £2.3bn programme to do that over the next six years - but also looking at increasing resilience." This would mean "when properties do flood, that they have solid floors, waterproof plaster, more electrics up the wall - so that people can get into their houses and businesses more quickly".

Quite clearly, more flooding because climate change and we'd better just make waterproof houses and just live with it. There's also someone called Gaia Vince (surely a spoof name, this is Mr. Cable in retirement, no?) in The Guardian telling us much the same thing. We've also a Dutch expert telling us that we should be changing what we do with rivers:

When more than 1,800 people died in the wake of the 1953 North Sea flood in the Netherlands, the national reaction was: never again. The resulting Delta programme to close off the south-western river delta from the sea was so bold that its name became synonymous with dealing with a crisis. If an issue needs a major response, you can be sure that a Dutch politician will call for a “Delta plan to tackle X”. It is time that the UK took some of that attitude and got a Delta plan to tackle flooding.

Sounds like a plan really. We're on board with it. And then comes this, about the earlier Cumbria floods:

Amid all the devastation and recrimination over the floods in Cumbria hardly anybody mentions one factor that may not be the sole cause, but certainly hasn’t helped.

That is the almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000.

Yet until then, for all of recorded history, it almost went without saying that a watercourse needed to be big enough to take any water that flowed into it, otherwise it would overflow and inundate the surrounding land and houses.

Every civilisation has known that, except apparently ours. It is just common sense. City authorities and, before them, manors and towns and villages, organised themselves to make sure their watercourses were cleansed, deepened and sometimes embanked to hold whatever water they had to carry away.

Christopher Booker and Owen Paterson have said much the same thing about the Somerset Levels floods of a couple of years back: given that that area is below sea level drainage and pumping is really rather important. So what's changed?

But all this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when we adopted the European Water Framework Directive in 2000. No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’.

‘Heavily modified waters’, which include rivers dredged or embanked to prevent flooding, cannot, by definition, ever satisfy the terms of the directive.

So, in order to comply with the obligations imposed on us by the EU we had to stop dredging and embanking and allow rivers to ‘re-connect with their floodplains’, as the currently fashionable jargon has it.

We don't claim that this is absolutely right as an explanation. We're willing to admit that there might be the occasional subject upon which we are not entirely perfectly informed. But we most certainly think that it is an entirely possible, could even be probable, explanation. Flood plain management changes, we get lots more floods. Not a huge logical leap to think that there might be a connection.

The solution might therefore be to go back to managing the landscape as our forefathers did. Oh, and stop building on flood plains as the current planning system encourages. That is, as is so often true, the correct solution to a problem that government claims it is trying to solve is to stop government doing the damn fool things it is already doing.

It's remarkable how often that is the correct answer.