Save me from local solutions

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!


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30 Replies to “Save me from local solutions”

  1. Our local solution is to destroy 70% of the Bracken on steep slopes and remove the 'white ground' normally the best area for Black Grouse all for the possibility of heather taking over. Not to mention spraying a band substance over a water catchment area which destroys the aquatic life! Even the new trees are not safe and keepers want to remove them. Of course I am talking about the new Langholm Project spending £3 .5 million of our money. Mono culture rules instead of bio diversity on a SSSI!! No wonder the harriers have to eat white rats!

  2. There's no doubt the floods have badly damaged the conservative's anti-public sector stance and if they lose votes as a result they have no one but themselves to blame. Their dogmatism has - just as with EU reform - served to close down a valid argument - how can & should the state be involved ? Surprisingly, I'm rather in sympathy with the state doing less - we've accreted endless bureaucracy designed to solve every problem - many of the decades ago and quite irrelevant today. One of the things that caught the Government out over the Forestry Commission is that it had achieved the near impossible - a national body with a local face. Ironically, it is also doing a rather good job of privatising itself: the Fc I joined did 80% of its work with in house staff and equipment. Today 80% of the work on the estate is private sector and FE England recorded over 600 private businesses working on the estate - lots of jobs, lots of economic activity and in the case of Westonbirt Arboretum a £500,000 deficit turned into break even on a turnover of £3, and jobs doubled. So what is FC (or EA for that matter) for ? the answer is simple - and the one you give, Mark - it is the landscape scale thinking, planning and delivery that is beyond the scope of local action.

    It's surprising, isn't it, that amongst all the flooding we haven't heard much of 'too much Government, too expensive - save my taxes !' Even more so when you realise that Somerset has an extreme Conservative County Council set on destroying as many public services as possible.

  3. One of the whispers I heard was the EA was going to be the scapegoat and was facing disbanding?!
    It was interesting to note from the footage in Surrey all the houses that had "paved" over their front gardens to create massive driveways, sadly after hearing Paul Daniels on This Week..last week I fear it will be locals only solution and as Michael Portilo said "It's not a case about saving every newt we have to put humans first", and that's how we arrived to this problem in the first place Mr.P!

  4. I agree that a joined-up coordinated approach is best, but I certainly wouldn't be too dismissive of local solutions based upon local knowledge. They definitely need to be part of the national planning jigsaw. For example, adoption of the solutions pioneered by Welsh farmers of the Pontbren Project - see in particular pages 20-27 here - would be an excellent starting point for flood management in many farmed upland catchment areas. A more integrated and sustainable upland management and food & fibre production model would be hard to find.

    Meanwhile, research at the GWCT’s Allerton Project, see here - gives several pointers to other techniques that can help slow farmland run-off while at the same time improving water quality.

    And let’s not forget that Whitehall and its associated agencies or arms-length bodies do certainly not always know best – despite employing cohorts of highly paid ‘experts’. A stark example of how badly wrong experts can get it is exemplified by the shocking story of state-sponsored forestry in the 1960s, 70s & 80s. Extensive ploughing and draining of uplands and peatlands (by the Forestry Commission and private forestry concerns), and then block planting tens, if not hundreds of millions of monoculture non-native conifers, exacerbated rapid run-off of precipitation, let to damaging acidification of watercourses, lakes and lochs and displaced significant numbers of upland birds through loss of breeding habitat and encroachment into the home ranges of many wide-ranging upland specialities. The landscapes and assemblages of birds and mammals in Dumfries & Galloway, Kintyre & Knapdale and other large swathes of the Scottish Highlands and uplands of England and Wales were changed beyond recognition, and not necessarily for the better. We are still living with the doleful legacy of that piece of central planning today.

    1. Keith - yes, it's easy to pick an example and forestry isn't a bad one. But if we'd had a forestry policy that said 'we want more trees' and left everyone to get on with it themselves, locally, then it would probably have been even worse! the cessation of upland forestry in England was a policy decision by government - a Conservative government - and not the combined wisdom of hundreds of land owners all doing the same right thing.

  5. Labour or Tory will not make a difference. Both have presided over the developing situation of climate change and associated flooding and have been told by academics for many, many years that action needed to be taken. By voting for these parties we have aided and abetted a head in the sand approach. I don't expect much more than the minimum from them in the coming years.

    We are fast approaching the time when all of us have to make the necessary lifestyle changes rather than talking about other people doing things. Hopefully housing in the south of England will now be adapted to cope with higher water levels, and only sensible building projects will be allowed. There will, however, be a massive cost to all of this.

    1. Steve - I admire your single-mindedness but your argument is terribly poor. Only if you really do think that all politicians and all political ideologies are the same does it make any sense at all. And even then it doesn't make much sense because the views of political parties are shaped by us - only by us. And so you argue that we should change the way we live but also argue that we shouldn't attempt to change the way that politicians live. Such nonsense!

      1. Well, you might see it as terribly poor Mark, but it's factually correct. Unless you can point to the government listening to the advice of climatologists and taking precautions in good time - which of cause you can't. If anything gets done it will be because the mainstream politicians have to listen to a very disgruntled populace and have to do something out of necessity or otherwise they'll be out - not because of anything else, and certainly not because they have offered sensible policies.

        Please be more careful though as I didn't say ALL politicians and ALL parties. You have misrepresented my post markedly. I only said Labour and Tory. And events have proved me to have been correct about that.

        I have also suggested Green. Seems sensible to me if we want green policies.

        1. Steve - I just took you at you word in your earlier comment when your position was 'I would recommend not voting but changing your lifestyle instead. That will have more of an impact.'. You didn't say 'as well' - you said 'instead'.

          We do have a Climate Change Act thanks to politicians, campaigners and NGOs. It's an act that leads the world and is a good example of 'the government listening to the advice of climatologists and taking precautions' (maybe not in 'good' time but late is better than never).

          Your message here appears to be - climate change is the most important thing and the way to solve it is through individual action alone. That looks more than a little ridiculous to me.

  6. Has anyone suggested a National Grid of water supply? This would involve the construction of more reservoirs where water could be pumped to and stored for times of drought, such as in areas of the south-east, which will no doubt be short of water in summer. These stored water supplies could also be used for irrigation of crops in dry conditions. It will cost money but may solve several problems at once. Reservoirs could be built in areas up-stream from towns liable to flood and the river bank could be engineered to divert water from the river to the reservoir without the need to pump. The water could then be restored to the river after the water level recedes or sent to a holding reservoir for future use. Just a thought.The initial cost would be high but the sooner this is in place the sooner we will solve the problem and in the long run it will be cheaper to do it now rather than later.

    1. There is a problem with reservoirs akin to wind turbines, people don't want them believe it or not on their doorsteps also you have the problem of taking agriculture land out of use. Also whilst surveying for homes in Peterborough I was told by one water board that they were considering underground reservoirs as everytime they created a reservoir it becomes SSSi and are then governed when and how much water they release.
      But another factor that no-one has mentioned and I have seen it happen first hand, councils have filled in roadside ditches, farmers have filled in ponds on their land and also again whilst surveying we came across 63% of drains blocked with leaves (right to the top of the drains) and still not cleaned out add to that the amount of sewers blocked with cooking grease. The cooking grease situation I believe is down to the local water authority but the leaves are down to the local council though some claim it's down to the Highway Agencies, the phrase to many Chief and not enough Indians springs to mind

  7. What are internal drainage boards. I know ours has to deal with the next village upstream.
    On that subject. A farmer in the next village upstream got into trouble with the environmental scheme for not having the water in his ditches within three inches of the pasture surface. (Probably the ESA scheme). Which for him meant it was difficult to get grazing animals on it without damage. Personally, living downstream, I would have preferred his marsh pastures not to be "full to the top" and to act as a sponge/buffer in case of a flood instead of being full of water already. I don't know what the science is but surely we are talking "every little helps" as they say.

    1. "Personally, living downstream, I would have preferred his marsh pastures not to be "full to the top" and to act as a sponge/buffer in case of a flood instead of being full of water already"

      Which makes you local, and even if you don't realise it, holding a clear understanding of how to manage surplus water conditions. Because your views as a local expert do not conform to Central Planning ideology they are not required, Thanks all the same, and you should get back in your box and let the Experts get on with their Plans to flood you.

      1. Although proposing a coordinated national or regional approach rather than having everyone doing their own thing does not preclude local people having a say in what the approach should be.

  8. The following problem has been referred to central Government several times by myself over the past decade. It resonates with both the drought and flooding scenarios. There are many reservoirs in the southern end of the Pennines, a lot of which were built in late Victorian times or thereabouts. In past hot summers water levels have occasionally reduced quite significantly to reveal huge accumulations of silt in the vast majority. I suspect the carrying capacity of these reservoirs may be down by 40% or even more. Little appears to be done to combat this so, in times of drought supplies are more limited and in times of heavy rainfall the water volumes simply replenish any shortfall and then cascade over the spillways along water courses to lower altitudes. Another problem waiting to another 30/50 years the carrying capacities will have reduced still further. This is a classic case where dredging is needed!!!!

  9. Interesting post on YWT website citing a new report published by The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) looking at dredging ( which notes that "widespread dredging could make flooding in some communities worse in future – not better" and calls for "leadership promoting sustainable measures to control flooding crises, rather than politically-motivated, knee-jerk reactions".

    There are lots of interesting quotes including one from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Chief Executive Martin Spray who says: ‘Wetlands alone provide £4bn worth of flood defence in the UK each year by storing water or buffering us from high tides. This dwarfs the millions spent on manmade defences. Working with nature at a catchment level, not against it, gets the power of nature working for us.’

    All adds up to a strong case for beaver reintroductions if you ask me 😉

  10. I was wondering considering the amount of talk from yourself Mark and others about flooding etc, and you constantly "talking up" your local MP Andy Sawford your feelings about the Rushden Lakes development which will be squeezed in between a local nature reserve and a Ramsar site, perhaps a blog about the impact of all that extra concrete on a flood plain and the possible trouble it'll have on smaller communities downstream, the impact of the building work on water quality and the nearby Ramsar site not to mention all the construction traffic and then eventually all the happy shoppers and their impact and why Andy Sawford is backing such a scheme, after all you keep telling all that will listen the wonders of the Labour party and nature, yet despite constant blogging, rightly so, on the Sanctuary yet silence from yourself and others on something that is proposed on your own doorstep, why is that?

    1. John - thank you. Mainly because I know very little about it!

      I wouldn't have thought that this post (amongst others) would have been regarded as 'telling all that will listen the wonders of the Labour party and nature' - would you?

      That must surely be in the constituency of the Conservative Peter Bone MP - yes?

  11. Mark is quite right about the implications of localism. I believe the best answer for preventing floods in winter and droughts in summer is to slow or almost stop the water close to where it falls. I'm talking wet woodlands, blanket bogs, mires and marshland. All the valuable wetland habitats we have been losing in fact. These hold water during high rainfall periods and release it slowly at other times. I think Somerset is paying the price for too much drainage elsewhere. Dredging may relieve some of the symptoms in the short term, but in the long term it is the opposite of the solution. Don't blame the EA. Starting with our degraded and drained uplands, we need to restore wetland habitats, nationally.

  12. George Moonbat, that endless whiner, whines today in the Gaianurd about the growing of maize in the UK and the endless whining from the National Farmers' Union. Buried in the snarking and showboating - in his canoe - are some truths. Amazing - Moonbat says something relevant - about a problem that was was identified by the early 1990s. Johnny come lately.

    1. "Amazing - Moonbat says something relevant - about a problem that was was identified by the early 1990s. Johnny come lately"

      I'm inclined to agree.

      As I may have said before, the biggest problem with maize is when it is grown incompetently as is often the case as many livestock farmers, although skilled stock-men, aren't that great at growing crops. That said, I think some progress has been made in the last few years, more farmers are sowing earlier maturing varieties, paying better attention to soil structure, crop nutrition and implementing appropriate post-harvest management.

      This year despite the cold spring getting maize growing off to a cold start, most of the farms I'm involved with had harvested their maize and sown either grass or wheat or rough cultivated the surface before the end of September.

      After taking advantage of the good soil conditions, they were then able to sit back and watch from afar as many of their fellow farmers came together with hoards of contractors to carry out their annual re-enactment of the battle of the Somme. This years on some farms, the trench warfare seemed to drag out well into early's always the same farms.

      1. "aren't that great at growing crops"

        There's many a stock farm that doesn't have a plough or drill - all done by contractors - so there's much less control over timely operations.

        Good to hear things went well up there in Ottle. In the steppe of Marlborough and the Tidworth tundra the mayhem indeed went on into the late months of 2013. It is weird to find groundwater lagoons rising from the chalk up on Hackpen Hill.

      2. Latest from SPR review process


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