Winter is not over, according to the calendar. It has been so warm, we can be forgiven for wondering if it actually started. The forecast touch of frost is welcome and reassuring. This winter, we have had fearsome weather in Britain, especially in the northern parts of these islands. (The ‘north’, as a region, is flexible according to how the political compass spins.) The ‘north’ – in this case from about Leeds to the top of Scotland – has been pounded by wind, deluged by incessant rain. Houses have been wrecked, roads have been peeled up like picnic blankets laid for fair weather, and ancient stone bridges swept away in moments. I walk down my local high street in Cockermouth and see shops closed, their insides gutted due to flooding reclamation work. The streets were piled high with shop fittings, damaged goods, sodden plasterboard and ruined carpets. Houses a short distance away are in much worse state, with family homes turned into damp shells that will take many months to repair. This flooding happened despite the recently-completed flood defences that were built after the 2009 floods. Without them, it is likely that the extent of the flooding would have been far worse than 2009.
Flood defences like these were designed for a ‘one in a few hundred’ or similar order of storm. People mistook this as ‘there won’t be another one like this for x hundred years’. This is not what was meant in the language of risk assessment. And the data upon which this figure was based, was worked from what happened in the past, over the comparatively short human scale of data gathering. The rainfall we have recently experienced is off the scale of anything that has been seen. We must take heed of the prospect that ‘extremes’ will become the new ‘normal’, and prepare for unpredictable weather.
Weather is not tame, but the consequence of complex global behaviour of the atmosphere and water, the sun and the tides that drive the processes within the thin layer of atmosphere that clings to our planet and makes life possible. The media is screaming – better flood defences, dredging of rivers, plant trees, ban grouse moors, don’t build on flood plains, and much more. Weather is complicated; I don’t begin to understand the intricacies and interactions that turn ‘climate’ into ‘weather’. Our planet operates on many levels, and we are used to certain patterns of weather that fall into line with seasons, and produce, like a clockwork diorama, the progression of spring, summer, autumn and winter that drives the ecosystem with are familiar with, the system that feeds and sustains us on this planet. We are seeing weather patterns that do not fit the shape of our experience. Human beings are recent additions to the landscape. Animals roaming the prehistoric terrain would either have drowned or moved to a safer place when their territory was flooded. But humans have a lot of baggage – our homes, towns and highways that we regard as permanent fixtures, except by Nature, which does not consider them with any particular kindness. Perhaps we must drastically re-think our way of life and prepare for the range of weather events that we may encounter in the future. Our baggage includes our unwieldy systems of government – we wait for ‘them’ to sort it out. Our government has remained mostly silent on the consequences of funding cuts to flood defences. Councils cannot afford to invest in necessary measures, budgets for local government have been slashed. The ordinary householder/business owner is not able to implement expensive measures to protect their property. We have a government that has not only cut funding to flood defences, but is promoting fossil fuel burning by offering up our country to fracking, has cut green subsidies for alternative energy, and de-regulated energy measures for new housing, some of which will be built on flood plains. There is little investment in innovative alternative energy, and reliance on expensive new nuclear plant to be built by foreign powers. Financial speculation has placed control of major infrastructure projects in the hands of corporations whose interests are not those of the British public, but to make money out of us. We have need of an innovative government whose interests are those of the people, and is prepared to work democratically with the people – not driven by party-political dogma and the pursuit of an artificial ‘bottom line’ on the budget.
Yes, flood defences are needed, more investment, but also more imagination. Water management is another huge issue that must be discussed with landowners, farmers and town-dwellers alike. We can’t afford to be selfish, romantic or protectionist, but need to understand how to respect the water that runs through all of our lives. We must learn to cope with what will likely be a recurring theme.
I was heartened to hear of ameliorative ad hoc measures taken by local businesses in Cockermouth, where shopkeepers, on seeing the waters rising, protected their shops with MDF panels sawn to fit doorways and fixed with mastic bought from the local hardware shop. This helped to reduce the amount of floodwater that got in, or reduced it significantly, so that quick clean-up was achieved. This approach was not possible for all, as the shops date from at least Georgian times, and are all different shapes and sizes not so amenable to this approach, and some are occupied by national businesses. It must be noted that some are landlord-dependent for installing flood defences, and also the town is regulated by the need for the shop fronts to be in keeping with the heritage. Other business owners made sure that the walls of their premises were not re-plastered, but coated in concrete which is much easier to clean. None of this would have saved the houses that were inundated over head height. So, how to protect your town?
An article caught my eye in The Independent newspaper, from Geoffrey Lean: UK Flooding: How a Town in Yorkshire Stayed Dry, concerning the residents of the flood-prone Pickering in Yorkshire, who, refused funding for flood defences by the government, took matters into their own hands. As a community, in consultation with experts, the Civic Trust, chaired by Mike Potter, looked to the past for wisdom of how to protect their town, and set about following the historic example of monks from Byland Abbey, by planting 29 hectares of woodand, setting 167 ‘leaky dams’ and 187 ‘lesser obstructions’ to slow the release of water into water courses, and finally a bund to act as a holding tank for 120,000 cubic metres of floodwater, allowing it to be released much more slowly. Pickering escaped flooding, whilst other towns in the county were badly affected. A wonderful example of working within the community to find a solution that works for that community and location. I applaud them. And not the ‘them’ who hide high and dry in Westminster.