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Tory policies on floods and climate change need a good dredging

It’s madness that our political system throws untold billions into bailing out the banks, yet could not find a couple of million to drain the fields, says ALAN SIMPSON

As the south of England sinks in a morass of flooded homes or waits for the next river to burst, who says we couldn’t see this coming?

Long before climate scientists come to any consensus about the shape of a world that may be 2°, 3° or 4° warmer, most have been clear that the journey towards it will be “turbulent.” Get used to the fact that extreme weather events will become the new norm.

I would not wish the floods on any of the families or communities whose lives have been devastated by inundation, but we may end up having much to thank them for.

They may be the lifeline that rescues Britain from the dead hand of climate change denialism — a delusion that has dragged British politics into a space previously only occupied by the crazies in the US Tea Party.

A government that celebrates its latest “bonfire of regulations,” while refusing to restrict flood plain developments, place a 20-year liability for flood damage on developers or budget for an increase in flood defence expenditure is clearly “out to lunch.”

Some five million homes in floodable areas are waking up to the reality that all may not be well in this deregulatory utopia.

This is more than “a little local problem.” At the beginning of this decade, when Britain still had “the greenest government ever,” Jorgen Randers produced a book called, simply, 2052.

It tried to anticipate something of the mess we are in the process of creating — and what we might do about it. So much of it is being acted out around the sandbags we hurriedly assemble.

This is not just about floods, storms and dredging. In other parts of the world the extreme weather conditions are different, but no less severe.

Drought, freezing cold, tornados and thunderstorms queue up to play havoc with food security, energy security, water management, transport systems and daily living.

The four horsemen are out doing the rounds, each looking for their own apocalypse.

It may not be quite that bad but, as Randers tried to warn, it won’t be much better.

How much “better” depends on our willingness to engage in a more root-and-branch rethink of contemporary economics and the meaning of “security.”

At the moment, what passes for the cut-and-thrust of British political debate amounts to little more than silly boys sticking tongues out at each other.

We are facing the disruption of global weather patterns, with huge consequences for the way societies — and economies — will work.

In comparison, the 2008 banking crisis will be seen as just a little local meltdown at the end of an era that had already had its day.

A weakened jet stream — normally Britain’s guarantee of more predictable and manageable winters — has taken a dive southwards and no longer holds back the colder Arctic air.

The jet stream didn’t shift its path southwards because it received an irresistible “package holiday” offer from Torremolinos. It is just one of the elements of climate change.

Global warming has altered the balance between sea and land temperatures and changed atmospheric circulation patterns.

A warmer atmosphere, that holds more water vapour, also distributes its rainfall more turbulently and unequally.

Britain may be in the grip of relentless storms and floods, but California and parts of Australia are in the middle of severe drought emergencies. So too are China, north Africa and Brazil.

In the Middle East, already torn apart by civil wars and an unparalleled refugee crisis, all of the “cradle of civilisation” countries — surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — are having to contemplate water rationing.

Britain’s submerged farmlands will pay a price in the stunted harvests they yield during the growing seasons that follow, but this will be as nothing in relation to the disruption of global food supplies.

Britain will inevitably face higher food prices and increased hardship. But internationally it will bring starvation and war. People may starve for lack of food, but they will kill over lack of water.

Despite warnings from an array of national leaders about the prospect of “water wars,” it is clear that today’s global institutions have little to say and less to offer to these new “security” crises.

The post-war consensus — based on interdependency, inclusion and redistribution — has long since given way to a free-for-all mindset.

Now, while the richest may prosper, the rest can go swing. Wars, both civil and regional, are the bastard children of this mindset.

All this may be a heavy burden to place on the sodden carpets and submerged gardens of Somerset. Too heavy.

But theirs might just become the “home ground” on which Britain could script a different set of rules about a new “security” manifesto.

There was nothing new in the government figures showing that every £1 spent on flood defences would save £8 on the avoided costs of flood clean-up.

The trouble is that this cuts little mustard within the Treasury. Its “net present value” calculations get quickly devalued if allowed to assume there’s a low risk of flooding.

Then the Treasury gets happier still if clean-up costs have to be picked up by others — the insurance industry — rather than themselves.
Much of today’s Treasury thinking is just Mickey Mouse economics.

In the second world war, Britain didn’t build air raid shelters in the hope that the Luftwaffe would bomb enough to justify the investment. We built shelters to keep people safe.

Britain has to do the same now, in a whole new plan for infrastructure investment and repair.

On the sunken streets of Somerset and beyond, the avoidance of such investment will simply fast-track people’s “security” from the (publicly) unaffordable into the (privately) uninsurable.

Climate change will force us into a new apportionment of risk and responsibility — and someone has to break this to the Treasury.

In the real world, it just looks insane to have constructed a political system that would throw untold billions into bailing out the banks, yet could not find £4 million to drain the fields.

Of course a comprehensive flood defence system would cost more than this, but that doesn’t make it unaffordable. Trawl through the images of flood defence and rescue work on your television screens.

You will see police officers, firefighters, the armed forces, hundreds of Environment Agency staff and communities galore piling in to the rescue.

So far, I haven’t seen any “credit default swap” lifting a single sandbag. Nor a derivative. Nor a hedge fund or bank throwing their bonus pots into the rescue mission.

Yet these are the institutions whose misdemeanours have had to be “dredged,” at public expense, while a new austerity economics forces everyone else to make do with less.

Nor could I see any sign of the property developers, which pocketed huge amounts of cash from building on flood plains, queuing up to pay for the river dredging. They, and their profits, are safe and dry somewhere else.

What is clear is that it isn’t just the rivers but the whole of government that needs a good dredging.

The influence of developers needs to be dredged out of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Unaccountable and footloose capital needs dredging from the Treasury.

Big energy must be dredged out of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and junk food and pharming interests dredged from the Department of the Environment.

Then we might begin a new “living with water” dialogue with ourselves.

Britain will doubtless have to surrender land for floodable purposes.

My own preference would be to look first at the land banks accumulated by developers — for speculative purposes — in flood plain areas. This would cut one of the links between land and casino economics.

Then we must look at housing that can live with floods. The Dutch have been doing this for decades and there is much we can learn from them.

They realised that building higher dikes to keep out the sea is no longer a sufficient solution.

In Maasbommel, a community of 37 homes near the Maas River dyke, the Dutch have built amphibious homes that rest on land but can rise when waters rise.

When the river swells the house will float as much as 18 feet. They float back down as the water subsides.

In the IJburg district of Amsterdam, they have whole floating neighbourhoods, built with docks and jetties instead of roadways.

Britain may not go as far as floating neighbourhoods, but housing policy has to travel in this direction — driven by higher standards, tougher regulations and longer-term sustainable ambitions.

Building must become more flood-resilient and energy independent, permeable pavements the norm rather than the exception and planting for water retention the no-brain requirement along river courses. To pay for, or reward, the opposite is madness.

In its analysis of how the world might cope with the turbulent climate that past neglect now guarantees, the book 2052 offers one clear prediction — those countries with a stronger approach to economic intervention will fare better than those that would “leave it to the market.”

Britain has to reach out for a politics beyond the sandbags. The question is, does any part of our political system have the sense to recognise this, and the courage to act?

Alan Simpson is an independent adviser on the environment and a former Labour MP.

2052 by Jorgen Randers is available from Chelsea Green Publishing.


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