I pottered up to parliament yesterday to listen to the All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on natural flood defences, and very interesting it was too. I was there to listen to, among others, Jeremy Biggs of the Freshwater Habitats Trust, an excellent charity which we support. I’m the bald suit in the photo.
I’ve been to several parliamentary group and committee hearings and don’t understand why more folk don’t bother to (including, in this instance, any MPs from Somerset!). It’s a great opportunity to hear experts and meet interesting people, not least politicians, who, unfashionably, I generally find impressive. It also gives you a sense of the difficulty of establishing and implementing joined up policy in the environment.*
Natural flood defences, it turns out, are unsurprisingly complicated. It’s not just a question of paying hill farmers to plant trees in catchment areas.
There were three themes running through yesterday’s presentations and debate which were familiar from other environmental issues. Most obviously, there is no money available to action any new initiative, which will somehow have to be paid by the private sector. Secondly, there is limited available data to promote new schemes or help design them. Thirdly, policy has to be not just well informed but co-ordinated. I’m not convinced these things won’t happen in this instance, and the gains for biodiversity and the voters could be immense.
*This is one of the reasons I don’t subscribe to organizations like Avaaz and Change.org, which reduce issues to 140 characters and spew out tens of thousands of emails into MPs’ inboxes. Ironically, they increase a sense of alienation from the process of government which Americans are currently paying a heavy price for.
Much of the Somerset Levels, an hour west of us, is still under water. This video was taken in late November down the road from Burrow Hill, where the lovely Somerset Distillery is based:
Three weeks later there’s a sorry mess of abandoned cars and floating hay bales in a scene more like a post-apocalyptic disaster movie than rural England:
It’s not making news, but that doesn’t make the plight of the folk down there any better. This is an A Road that’s flooded, between Taunton and Glastonbury, and it means a 15 mile detour around the mess that was the River Parrett. Better a mess here than in downstream Bridgwater, I suppose. The Environment Agency estimate there are 43 million tonnes of water currently lying on the levels, which sounds like a lot to me. They reckon the road will be closed until after Christmas – at least. It was closed in May as well.
What’s to be done? Of course the Levels have always been liable to flooding, but in recent history we’ve felt we’ve been able to control that. In earlier years Sumorsaete was, literally, the land of the summer people, and parts of the county abandoned to the water in winter. After hundreds of years’ work I can’t imagine there are any more flood prevention schemes that can be introduced, even if we could afford them. The more extreme weather events we are seeing are showing no signs of mitigating. Sea levels will rise. The farmers are all going bust and their fields and houses are unsaleable. When will government start to face the reality of global warming that’s staring the Burrowbridge locals in the face, and start thinking the unthinkable about land use in these areas? Could we pay for land to be added to the astonishing – and valuable – wildlife reserves already in the area, for example? Things can’t go on as they are.