How Green Ideology Turned A Deluge Into A Flood

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Som­er­set saw the floods com­ing. The Envi­ron­ment Agency should have, too.


It has tak­en six long weeks to uncov­er the real hid­den rea­sons why, from the West Coun­try to the Thames Val­ley, the flood­ing caused by the wettest Jan­u­ary on record has led to such an immense nation­al dis­as­ter. Only now have the two ‘smok­ing guns’ final­ly come to light which show just how and why all this chaos and mis­ery has result­ed direct­ly from a mas­sive sys­tem fail­ure in the curi­ous way our coun­try is governed.

Because I live in Som­er­set, I first became aware that some­thing very dis­turb­ing was going on back around the new year. As it became clear that the flood waters on the Som­er­set Lev­els were begin­ning to rise dan­ger­ous­ly high for the third year run­ning, I set out to find tech­ni­cal experts who could explain just what had gone wrong.

I dis­cov­ered what I was look­ing for in the mem­bers of a small task force set up by the Roy­al Bath and West agri­cul­tur­al soci­ety, which from the mid-18th cen­tu­ry had organ­ised the effec­tive drain­ing of the Lev­els, after they were first reclaimed from a marshy wilder­ness by Dutch engi­neers in the reign of Charles I. These farm­ers, with long prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence of work­ing with the local drainage boards, along with an emi­nent engi­neer who chairs the Wes­sex flood defence com­mit­tee, were in no doubt as to why in recent years the Lev­els have become sub­ject to abnor­mal­ly pro­longed and destruc­tive flooding.

The prob­lem began, they said, in 1996 when the new Envi­ron­ment Agency took over­all respon­si­bil­i­ty for man­ag­ing Britain’s rivers. These men had been alarmed to see a sharp decline in reg­u­lar dredg­ing. The rivers have always been cru­cial to keep­ing the Lev­els drained, because they pro­vide the only way to allow flood waters to escape to the sea. Equal­ly wor­ry­ing was how scores of pump­ing sta­tions which car­ry water to the rivers were being neglect­ed. And although the drainage boards were still allowed to oper­ate, their work was now being seri­ous­ly ham­pered by a thick­et of new EU waste reg­u­la­tions, zeal­ous­ly enforced by the EA. These made it almost impos­si­ble to dis­pose sen­si­bly of any silt removed from the maze of drainage ditch­es which are such a promi­nent fea­ture of the Levels.

But all this got marked­ly worse after 2002 when the Baroness Young of Old Scone, a Labour peer­ess, became the agency’s new chief exec­u­tive. Dredg­ing vir­tu­al­ly ceased alto­geth­er. The rivers began dan­ger­ous­ly to silt up. The Baroness, who had pre­vi­ous­ly run the Roy­al Soci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Birds and Nat­ur­al Eng­land, talked obses­sive­ly about the need to pro­mote the inter­ests of wildlife. She was famous­ly heard to say that she want­ed to see ‘a limpet mine put on every pump­ing sta­tion’. The experts I was talk­ing to had no doubt that this appar­ent wish to put the cause of nature over that of keep­ing the Lev­els prop­er­ly drained was even­tu­al­ly going to cre­ate pre­cise­ly the kind of dis­as­ter we are see­ing today. Their mes­sage as to what needs to be done couldn’t have been clearer.

First, they want­ed to see a resump­tion of dredg­ing those choked rivers. Sec­ond, they want­ed respon­si­bil­i­ty for man­ag­ing the Lev­els to be hand­ed back to those local bod­ies which kept them effec­tive­ly drained for gen­er­a­tions, with­out hav­ing the EA con­stant­ly on their backs.

So com­pelling was their mes­sage that I con­veyed to our Envi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary, Owen Pater­son, that he should vis­it Som­er­set to get a first-hand pic­ture of what was to be done. He was as impressed by what these prac­ti­cal experts had to tell him as they were by how quick­ly he got the mes­sage. After speak­ing to oth­er local rep­re­sen­ta­tives the next morn­ing, he gave them six weeks to come up with a work­able action plan. And if only he hadn’t then been snared into a media dis­as­ter, when unex­pect­ed­ly con­front­ed by a mob of shout­ing pro­test­ers crowd­ing so dense­ly around him that he couldn’t even get to the back of his car to don his wellies, he could have qui­et­ly returned to Lon­don hav­ing pulled off by far the most effec­tive prac­ti­cal ini­tia­tive yet to have emerged from this appalling mess.

Already, how­ev­er, so much dam­age had been done by the exces­sive flood­ing, for which there could be no quick fix, that, as ever more farms and vil­lages had to be aban­doned, the man-made dis­as­ter esca­lat­ed into a full-blown polit­i­cal cri­sis — tak­ing on a fur­ther dra­mat­ic dimen­sion as sim­i­lar­ly cat­a­stroph­ic flood­ing began to threat­en the Thames Valley.

We had the great and the good con­verg­ing on those flood­ed Som­er­set vil­lages from all direc­tions: a vis­it from Prince Charles, car­ried along the flood­wa­ters on an impro­vised throne; the hap­less Lord Smith of the Envi­ron­ment Agency being yelled at by irate flood vic­tims; David Cameron fly­ing in by heli­copter; Nigel Farage being regaled by res­i­dents in a local pub, Nick Clegg waf­fling as inef­fec­tu­al­ly as ever. With Owen Pater­son rushed off to hos­pi­tal for a seri­ous eye oper­a­tion, we then had Fat­ty Pick­les try­ing to give the impres­sion that he was now in charge, lash­ing out at Lord Smith.

But while this media cir­cus and the grow­ing cri­sis along the Thames have been occu­py­ing the head­lines, assid­u­ous researchers have final­ly been uncov­er­ing those ‘smok­ing guns’ which explain how this dis­as­ter has come about. The first was revealed by my long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor Richard North, a real EU expert who, by comb­ing through scores of offi­cial doc­u­ments, unrav­elled the sto­ry of just how Baroness Young had been able to get her way in shift­ing her agency’s pri­or­i­ties towards pro­mot­ing the inter­ests of ‘nature’ over those of farm­ing and people.

A key part in this had been played by those EU direc­tives which gov­ern almost every­thing the Envi­ron­ment Agency gets up to — includ­ing two with which Baroness Young was already famil­iar when she presided over the RSPB — set­ting out the EU’s pol­i­cy on ‘habi­tats’ and ‘birds’. But just as impor­tant was a 2007 direc­tive on the ‘man­age­ment of flood risks’, which required ‘flood plains’, in the name of ‘bio­di­ver­si­ty’, to be made sub­ject to increased flooding.

This was just what Lady Young was look­ing for. She had already been giv­ing lec­tures and evi­dence to a House of Lords com­mit­tee on the EU’s ear­li­er Water Frame­work direc­tive, pro­claim­ing that one of her agency’s top pri­or­i­ties should be to cre­ate more ‘habi­tats’ for wildlife by allow­ing wet­lands to revert to nature. As she explained in an inter­view in 2008, cre­at­ing new nature reserves can be very expen­sive. By far the cheap­est way was sim­ply to allow nature to take its course, by halt­ing the drainage of wet­lands such as the Som­er­set Lev­els. The recipe she proud­ly gave in her lec­tures, repeat­ed to that Lords com­mit­tee, was: for ‘instant wildlife, just add water’.

In 2008 her agency there­fore pro­duced a 275-page doc­u­ment cat­e­goris­ing areas at risk of flood­ing under six pol­i­cy options.  These ranged from Pol­i­cy 1, cov­er­ing areas where flood defences should be improved, down to cat­e­go­ry 6, where, in the name of ‘bio­di­ver­si­ty’, the pol­i­cy should be to ‘take action to increase the fre­quen­cy of flood­ing’. The paper placed the Som­er­set Lev­els firm­ly under Pol­i­cy 6, where the inten­tion was quite delib­er­ate­ly to allow more flood­ing. The direct con­se­quences of that we are  now see­ing round the clock on our tele­vi­sion screens.

The sec­ond smok­ing gun, which explains the oth­er half of the sto­ry, and why we are see­ing a flood­ing dis­as­ter not just in Som­er­set but also on the Thames and else­where, has now come to light thanks to the What­dothey­know web­site which spe­cialis­es in pub­lish­ing the results of Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion requests. The Envi­ron­ment Agency’s response to an enquiry as to why the Thames has also not been prop­er­ly dredged since 1996 reveals that this was because the new EU waste reg­u­la­tions of that year made reg­u­lar dredg­ing ‘uneco­nom­i­cal’.

They made dis­pos­al of silt dredged from rivers by local landown­ers so com­plex and expen­sive that it became much more attrac­tive to take advan­tage of the ‘finan­cial incen­tives’ giv­en to ‘con­ser­va­tion schemes’. This was exact­ly what those farm­ers had found on the Som­er­set Levels.

So, at last laid bare, has been the hid­den back­ground to our floods dis­as­ter. Aid­ed by that wettest ever Jan­u­ary, it has been brought about by a syn­er­gy between ‘green’ ide­o­logues here in Britain and an array of leg­is­la­tion from Brus­sels which has to guide pol­i­cy in every EU mem­ber state.

Even in Hol­land there have been fierce rows over pro­pos­als to dis­man­tle some of the dykes which pro­tect the 29 per cent of that coun­try below sea lev­el. But in no nation has this ‘green’ ide­ol­o­gy found such a sym­pa­thet­ic response as in Britain, where the senior offi­cials of the EA — 14 of them earn­ing more than £100,000 a year — have long been more swayed by those Agen­da 21 doc­trines of ‘sus­tain­abil­i­ty’ and ‘bio­di­ver­si­ty’ than by any prac­ti­cal con­cern for the needs of peo­ple, homes, busi­ness­es and farmland.

The over­whelm­ing les­son emerg­ing from this dis­as­ter is that it has been made far worse than it need­ed to be by a cat­a­stroph­ic pol­i­cy fail­ure. When Lord Smith weak­ly tries to com­plain that this was only because rules set by the Trea­sury wouldn’t allow his organ­i­sa­tion to spend £4 mil­lion on dredg­ing the riv­er Par­rett, which flows through the Lev­els, the vic­tims of the pol­i­cy point to the Envi­ron­ment Agency’s will­ing­ness to see £31 mil­lion spent on allow­ing the sea to flood hun­dreds of acres of prime farm­land on the near­by Som­er­set coast, to cre­ate anoth­er habi­tat for birds.

In Som­er­set alone, quite apart from the Thames Val­ley, the even­tu­al cost of this dis­as­ter is already esti­mat­ed at well over£100 mil­lion. If this cost also includes the drown­ing of count­less ground-nest­ing birds, hedge­hogs, water voles and bad­gers which the poli­cies of Brus­sels and Baroness Young have made inevitable, then, even on their own terms, the case for root-and-branch rever­sal of such a crazi­ly self-delud­ing pol­i­cy becomes overwhelming.

But how to dis­en­tan­gle our­selves from this mess, when we are com­mit­ted by law to obey those EU rules, is anoth­er prob­lem altogether.