Royal Society: Leave the Somerset Levels to Flood

Royal Society: Leave the Somerset Levels to Flood

The Royal Society has released a report claiming that the campaign to save the Somerset levels from flooding is a triumph of politics over science. They argue that, as the floods affect agricultural land and not homes, it is of less importance when allocating flood defences. They also call on farmers to rethink their expectations over flooding in the light of climate change, and to adapt by planting different crops.

The report, which studies resilience to extreme weather, also recommends that farmers with upland farms look for ways to slow the flow of water from their land, and that all farmers should work to prevent fertiliser leaching into streams and drainage ditches, where it can promote the growth of weeds, clogging up the waterways, the BBC has reported.

Also on the academics’ wish list were new rules restricting building on flood plains, particularly of bungalows. Instead they recommend houses with concrete flood defences and raised electricity points.

Although their research was undertaken on a global level, the BBC asked the authors how their findings may be applied to Somerset. Bristol University’s Prof Paul Bates, one of the co-authors said “There was completely disproportionate attention on the Somerset Levels. About 150 homes were flooded compared with 6-10,000 nationwide. Local farmers lobbied very effectively, seized the agenda and got the Environment Agency to overturn its policy of not dredging.

“But the agency’s policy was the right one. This is a massive seasonally-flooded wetland and dredging would have made only a marginal difference. It could even make matters worse if it shunts the water somewhere else.

“There’s huge demand for flood protection in the UK. It’s not cost-effective to use public money protecting agricultural land,” he said, adding that in his personal view “we may have to compensate people living there to move away completely”.

His colleague Prof Rob Nicholls from Southampton University agreed: “People think, hey – I’ve got a right not to be flooded. But we can’t afford to think like that. Some places you need to learn to live with water, accept mentally that it will flood… or just pull out.”

The BBC’s reporter Roger Harrabin, a notorious advocate of man-made climate change theory, spoke to two Somerset farmers to gauge their views. Unsurprisingly, they do not agree with the experts. “This part of the river has been dredged and they’ve put the silt on to the side of the bank. It’s made a difference already,” farmer Heather Venn told him.

“We certainly haven’t gone underwater yet with all the rain we’ve had and I know we won’t over the next couple of months… because there’s a General Election coming up and the pumping’s going to happen. If this system had been maintained at its design level in the sixties we wouldn’t have had the devastation – and that’s why the media were in here,” she said.

Fellow farmer James Winslade said “These so-called experts haven’t got a clue what they are talking about. We are used to being flooded – but we don’t expect to get ignored for so long.”

However, what Harrabin doesn’t explain in his article is that the flooding defences predate the 1960s by hundreds of years; they were simply modernised in the 1960s. The levels, a marshy swampland by nature, were first drained by Dutch engineers during the 1600s. Maintenance of the vast network of drainage ditches was organised by the Royal Bath and West agricultural society from the mid-1700s onwards, all the way up to 1996 when the new Environment Agency took on responsibility and promptly enforced a policy of limiting dredging.

Under Baroness Young of Scone, the vehement environmentalist who took control of the Agency in 2002, draining virtually ceased, allowing the ditches to silt up. Baroness Scone, who had moved to the Agency from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was convinced that flooding the levels would promote wildlife. She once famously proclaimed that she would like to see “a limpet mine put on every pumping station”.

Christopher Booker talked to local experts, including those of the Royal Bath and West agricultural society. Writing for the Spectator during last year’s floods he said “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.

Whilst the Royal Society laments that politics is preventing flooding from taking place, Booker finds that politics, in particular environmental ideology, was the cause of last year’s floods.

“A key part in this had been played by those EU directives which govern almost everything the Environment Agency gets up to. […]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.”

He concludes that last year’s flooding of the Somerset levels was “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,” and that “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.”