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Fifty years of flood defence neglect

Friday 27 November 2009

The build-up to the devastating floods in Cumbria began fifty years ago, says our countryside commentator John Sheard. A culmination of natural causes led to the so-called “once in a millennium” events in Cockermouth but the seeds of disaster were sown on the high fells in the 1960s.

THE TRAGIC floods which hit Cockermouth and other Cumbrian towns a week ago were a “once in the millennium” event according to Government spokesmen. More than a foot of water fell on the high fells like Shap in 24 hours, the worst downpour recorded since records began, they said, hinting broadly (and almost with glee) that global warming was the cause.

By the greatest of ironies, that deluge began a week on the very day when the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn was announcing new flooding defence measures throughout England that will cost £22 million – which, if were all given to tiny Cockermouth might just about cover the damage to private property. Unless, of course, more bridges collapse.

Cumbrian floods November 2009

Now I am not saying that this extra cash is not welcome – every little helps, to use the Tesco jingle – but it is pitifully little and it comes way too late. The residents of Cockermouth demanded that the river should be dredged several years ago but the Environment Agency says this would not have averted the tragedy – and would have been very expensive.

One suspects that the reluctance to spend money on such projects – anti-flood budgets have been cut for years. Yet, sadly, tragic flooding events like this have been happening for decades. So were those also “millennium” events?

I remember Lynmouth in Devon being virtually swept away in 1952, with a loss of more than 30 lives. In more recent years, Boscastle in Cornwall was devastated, as was a large area of Hull and a vast swathe of the West Country just two years ago – and there are still hundreds of victims of those floods still living in caravans, their homes still unfit for habitation.

That makes five “thousand year” events in the past half century and, undoubtedly, all were caused in the main by freak weather. But a major contribution to these disasters has been human folly, caused either by a refusal to spend money on adequate defences or to raise extra money by ignoring nature’s warnings.

I once had a colleague who lost his car when it fell through a massive hole in our office car park after the sewer below collapsed. It took several days – and one of the biggest mobile cranes I have ever seen – to remove the wreck from this foul smelling pit.

During that time, however, we were able to study the beautifully arched red-brick sewer that had been built in Victorian times when the heaviest vehicle on the road was a horse and cart. The local authority had not spent a single penny in maintenance in the next 100 years so even this monument to 19th Century civil engineering finally gave up the ghost.

That is a story that I am pretty sure can be copied in many of our cities and bigger towns. Adequate drains and sewers are essential in urban areas where most of the land surface is covered with tarmac or concrete. This was the main cause of the disaster which struck Hull two years ago and has still not been properly addressed.

However in upland areas in Cumbria, the Yorkshire Dales and many of our most beautiful landscapes, one of the worst causes of modern-day flooding began in the 1960s with the large-scale drainage of peat bogs to make way for more sheep grazing or forestry.

tragic flooding events like this have been happening for decades...

This was done by cutting chevron-shaped ditches into the spongy peat to allow water to run off more quickly. And, boy, did that succeed: within a matter of years, those ditches – known as “grips” – had been scoured so deep that in some areas like the Yorkshire Dales and the Derbyshire Peak District they could hold a double decker bus.

The bogs were no longer a sponge but more of a water chute, sending huge quantities of rainwater or snowmelt hurtling down into the valleys below. The inevitable result: wide spread flooding of the lower reaches of rivers like the Aire, the Ure and the Swale in the Dales, the Derwent and Cocker in Cumbria.

This folly has now been recognised and they are small-scale operations going on in areas like Langstrothdale in the Dales to fill in those grips. But the money involved is nowhere near the amount required and is barely able to keep up with the increased rainfall of recent years.

Adding to this in more recent times, the massive housing boom – particularity encouraged by the present Government – in rural villages and market towns has meant more of the land being concreted over. And – madness upon madness – local authorities have been ignoring for years advice from scientists by granting planning permission for extensive new housing estates on known flood plains.

The result: thousands of householders in almost brand-new houses sold as “desirable water-side homes” who have either been flooded out who live in fear of it. At the same time, insurance premiums for such properties have soared and in some cases refused point-blank. This, in turn, has knocked tens of thousands of pounds off the value of those properties.

To be fair, Hilary Benn’s proposals under the new Water Management Bill – which may or may not get through Parliament before the next general election – hopes to tackle many of the above follies. But it is a problem that needs to be costed in hundreds of millions if not billions. Now that the country is broke can we expect “thousand year floods” ever couple of years from now-on-in?

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