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Flood relief: whoever shouts loudest gets the extra cash

As Britain continues to be battered by a seemingly endless cycle of winter storms, a cynicism is emerging about the reactions of Britain’s politicians. There are doubts about whether they care quite so much about the people at the receiving end as they do about scoring political points.

At a timely flooding event in London earlier this month, there was a growing consensus that perhaps the government’s new focus on tackling the impact of the floods in England was less about coming to the aid of those in true need than it was about vote winning.

The attendees’ suspicions were aroused, they said, by a tale of two flooding events in the past two months – the much publicised inundation of the Somerset Levels in south west England and the perhaps less known drenching of Boston in Lincolnshire.

It is unlikely to have escaped anyone’s notice but Somerset Levels suffered extensive flooding of around 65km2 of land and 40 properties.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, the situation in Boston has not drawn so many headlines.

This is despite the fact that in December the east coast suffered its worst tidal surge for 60 years – overtopping the Lincolnshire town’s flood defences and submerging 579 homes.

Environment Agency workers and contractors had to install temporary demountable flood defences to patch up a 30m section of severely damaged flood wall.

The natural inclination of the Levels to play host to water could barely be clearer.

It may not come as much of a surprise to those who know something about the flood risk in Somerset and Lincolnshire, that both have suffered during the recent bad weather spell. According to the Environment Agency, Somerset County Council is within its second highest category of local authorities where there is considered to be a significant likelihood of flooding. Across the borough between 7,500 and 10,000 properties are at risk. But Lincolnshire County Council is the largest land area in England to fall into the highest flood risk category. It is considered to have more than 10,000 properties with a significant likelihood of being flooded.

Risk levels are where similarities end, however.

Boston is a town with a small port while the Somerset Levels are very rural.

This is emphasised by the fact that Natural England has designated the Somerset Levels and Moors as an Environmentally Sensitive Area.

This area covers more than 27.6km2 and for those who don’t know it so well, the quango offers an evocative description of the land: “The whole area forms the largest lowland grazing marsh system in Britain and is, consequently, of outstanding environmental interest. The landscape value lies within the rectilinear pattern of traditionally managed fields and drainage channels within a low-lying, generally wet and open grassland landscape, containing scattered trees and scrub.”

The natural inclination of the Levels to play host to water could barely be clearer.

Yet there was a sense that perhaps the significance of the events in Boston paled in comparison to Somerset. Perhaps this was because of the apparent reduced media interest. Boston Borough Council clearly thought so.

A spokesman told NCE last week that their ability to gauge interest in the town’s plight was understandably overshadowed by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, which happened on the day of the flood.

But even still, it hasn’t recovered since then – only really gaining local media interest in the repair effort.

Significantly, there has been little mention of the fact that there is a plan in place for reducing the risk to the many thousands of Boston properties at risk – a £100M mini version of the Thames Barrier in the tidal River Haven.

If built, this could protect over 15,000 residential properties and nearly 700 businesses.

Last year’s National Infrastructure Pipeline, published alongside the Autumn Statement, projected that the scheme would get underway in 2013 with construction at its peak in 2016/17, but the scheme is still at the planning stage.

Part of the issue it now seems is that the project is being reviewed by an organisation notoriously keen to keep the purse strings tightened - HM Treasury.

At some point in its review process the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs decided to seek Treasury advice about procurement efficiencies and improvements to financial modelling for the scheme.

But in a report submitted to Lincolnshire County Council flood and drainage management scrutiny committee by the Environment Agency last July it was made clear that the decision to seek Treasury input was going to delay the project.

“The process is likely to result in delays in obtaining approval and potential delays to the project,” says the report.

“The project team is currently working on confirming the extent of potential delays and looking at ways to reduce the impacts on delivering the project.”

The seemingly endless coverage of vast swathes of land submerged in Somerset and a very vocal farming community, which kept re-telling stories of farmland being submerged for weeks, was all too much for the government to bear.

Suddenly the issue of dredging rivers became the topic du jour, and in the region’s largest ever such operation, 65 pumps began working around the clock to clear the floodwater. Then, as more rain was predicted in the area, around 40 Royal Marines from 40 Commando in Taunton were drafted in to help with sandbagging and moving householders’ property to higher ground.

Next, the government announced it was to spend £30M on new flood defence maintenance and repairs money for this year and £100M next year. A specific £10M has so far been allocated to deal with Somerset’s problems.

Yes, it’s right that the issues are debated and it will be most welcomed that more money is being pledged for the often underfunded repair and maintenance of flood defences. But many would have welcomed this before the current disaster situation arose.

But what of the wider strategy? At the time of writing, there was still no big announcement that government had got to work and dug Boston’s barrier out from the Treasury intray – if that is indeed where it currently lies, the local council believes it to remain in its planning stage but still no revised start date has been named.

This may not be explicitly about party politics . But it does seem to be about organised lobbying and he who shouts loudest.

And will there really be a government rethink of the priority of maintenance and repair priorities with greater consideration given to the resilience of critical infrastructure following last week’s dramatic disappearance into the sea of a section of the Great Western Main Line?

This may not be explicitly about party politics – the Tory-led coalition has a strong presence in Somerset and Lincolnshire. But it does seem to be about organised lobbying and he who shouts loudest.

Down on the Levels, there may be few houses, but there is farmland.

And farmers have one of the strongest national organisations going in the form of the National Farmers Union.

Daily interviews with the affected farmers are no doubt what got the attention of prime minister David Cameron and the bean counters.

There is clearly a fear that with an election year looming a well listened to national industry can get out the vote for its chosen party.

Perhaps another well-organised national industry that has a clear grasp on the wider issues could find a way to make itself heard.

Any takers?

Readers' comments (2)

  • The abject failure of successive UK governments to provide adequate protection against flooding demonstrates contempt for those at risk, failure to address a major risk to the destruction of our economy and ignorance of infrastructure priorities. When flood disasters occur all we get is political argument and point scoring and when ver all is conveniently forgotten until the next time. Our politicians are only interested in their own careers, more money and fat expenses. hey do not live in the same world as the electorate.
    Jim Barrack

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  • Alexandra Wynne says 65 sq.km was flooded. I understood it was 200 sq. km. that was flooded - and

    That there was "serious" flooding in the aera only about ten years ago -

    AND that, in 1919, 283 sq.km. of the Somerset levels was flooded.

    AND that the Somerset Levels have always flooded, since before Wells & Glastonbury were seaports circa 1000 A.D.

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