As I wrote some time ago, ‘there is no way to get rid of water, only to slow down its inevitable passage to the sea or speed it up’. And if I want to get rid of the water from my land it has to go somewhere. If I build a flood defence around my house, then that has implications for others next door or downstream.
And this is why we need a coordinated approach to flood defence – letting individuals do their own thing doesn’t add up to the best deal for all. It’s a very good example of what I believe to be a general truth (a political truth) – that we do better overall, and certainly achieve a fairer outcome too, if we act together rather than individually.
The best flood defence solution would not be arrived at by giving each town along any river, take the Thames, its own pot of money to be spent as the locals wished. With water, more obviously than with other things, what is done locally here has consequences for others elsewhere. That’s why we need a coordinated approach. We probably need something a bit like the Environment Agency in fact.
And, water also illustrates that you need to know what you are on about. The consequences of doing something here, e.g. dredging, building a barrier or letting some land flood, may have consequences elsewhere that only an expert can predict. Any time you hear the ‘I know the answer because I am a local’ argument you should listen carefully for vested interests and for nonsense. That’s why we need experts and why we need a broad overview of needs and priorities.
Now I don’t know to what extent the Environment Agency has done a good job on flood defence – I suspect that nor do its loudest supporters or detractors either. EA has never been my favourite government agency – it has always seemed rather bureaucratic and hardly meriting the ‘environment’ bit of its name. But it has always seemed to me to have some pretty good staff who were trying to deliver the best of public benefits (whilst being overly keen on engineering solutions). No doubt we’ll hear, at some later date, the verdict on EA.
But however good or damning that verdict might be, we’ll need something a bit like EA for the near and distant future. Won’t we? I don’t want a local myth-based solution in Oxfordshire that leads to flooding in Berkshire and doesn’t even work well in Oxfordshire. We need to know what we are talking about, we need to make difficult decisions and then we need to do the right things well, together.
Water is a complicated subject to get right. We need to work together to arrive at the best solutions for public expenditure in a crowded country and in a changing climate. Ignorance will not lead to bliss in this case. Perhaps knowledge won’t either – but it’s a much better bet.
This illustrates very well the need for strategic overview, shared resources, shared expertise and investment in expertise. Exactly the type of thing one tries to get from a central resource; exactly the type of thing one wants from central government; exactly what central government should deliver through government agencies such as EA (and NE and FC).
The Tories came into power with a quango-bashing, small-government agenda and it just doesn’t work when you are faced with big environmental problems like widespread flooding. It is a model which is bound to fail given the challenges that environmental issues throw at us.
Now, to be fair, my preferred solution of a wise and efficient central government that is alive to local needs whilst retaining a national overview of priorities is difficult to achieve too. But, I would say, we haven’t done too badly so far and could do better. But we should be trying to get there – not dismantling any chance of it.
When it comes to flooding then we are all in it together if we live in a flooded catchment. We need a One Nation approach – fairness to all, spending our money for the overall good and basing that spend on deep understanding.
And if droughts hit us this summer, we will need that same approach too!