“Where’s the Engineering Judgement?” That’s what NCE screamed from its front cover one year ago this week.
That cover was, of course, our frustrated response to a month of mounting political and media hysteria over the flooding of 40-odd homes on the Somerset Levels - while the aftermath of the inundation of 15,000 homes in Boston went unnoticed and unaddressed.
So has the passing of a year changed anything? Has engineering judgement saved the day?
At the time, the clamour was for dredging, dredging and more dredging as if it was a panacea to all of our winter woes.
And yes, some of Somerset’s £10M Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs emergency cash injection has gone into dredging an 8km long section of the River Parrett. And contrary to what some engineers think, the Environment Agency believes it was money well spent.
But dredging isn’t the only work that has been carried out in the area. This week we describe how critical highways have been raised, vulnerable villages have been protected by new defences and pumps to get water away from the Levels have been upgraded.
Yet there is still an underlying, inescapable truth that Somerset got more cash than it really deserved. As Environment Agency strategy and investment director Pete Fox tells us this week, the investment in Somerset was to meet a “particular priority” of the prime minister.
In fairness, Fox also points to the £297M pledged by the government to fund flood defences in the Thames Valley region just before Christmas as evidence that other areas aren’t being neglected - a sum that will protect 3,000 homes or more.
But that pledge is just that - a pledge.
And as we reported earlier this month, Boston is now looking well set to get its barrier - albeit not until 2019 at the earliest - with cash pledged there too. But again that pledge is just that - a pledge.
Both must survive a General Election and the Comprehensive Spending Review. Villagers on the Somerset Levels, meanwhile, are sorted, sitting pretty, protected by their much-upgraded flood defence infrastructure.
So what’s the lesson here? Certainly it’s hard to get past the old adage of he who shouts loudest wins. But it’s clearly more complex than that. In truth, the solutions for the Lower Thames Valley and Boston are technically, politically and environmentally complex, and there is a compelling logic in going for the quick wins in Somerset first. Better to be seen doing something than nothing.
And if in doing that, doing something for a cabinet minister like business secretary Vince Cable to go and see, keeps flood risk management near the top of the political agenda then - arguably - it will have been the right thing to do.
But if, and only if, it means that the people of the Lower Thames Valley get their defences and Boston gets its barrier. We mustn’t let the politicians forget them.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor