Matt Ridley: Don’t Blame Climate Change For UK Floods

  • Date: 04/01/16
  • Matt Ridley, The Times

From allowing water onto farms to improved land management, there are many ways we can mitigate future problems

You have been asked to review why Britain has yet again been hit by extremely damaging floods, as it was in Staines in 2014, Somerset in 2013, Cockermouth in 2009, Gloucester in 2007, Carlisle in 2005, Boscastle in 2004 and York in 2000. You will get a lot of advice, much of it delivered by hobby horse. You’ll need to decide how to allocate blame between four things: extreme weather, budget cuts, green priorities and land management.

First, I hope you will give the Environment Agency a hard time. The rain is not its fault, of course, and the quango seems to have done a reasonable job of responding. The fact that its chairman flew off to his home in Barbados between visits to the north of England is a red herring.

But if this were a private company, chartered to manage rivers, it would lose the contract. After York was inundated in 2000, Carlisle in 2005 and Cockermouth in 2009, the least we could expect is that the agency responsible for flood management would either prevent a re-occurrence, or publicly admit that this was impossible. Instead, it spent a fortune on measures that it said would work and didn’t. This is what an EA spokesman told the BBC in January last year: “You can never say never to flooding happening, but what we can say is Carlisle is a well-protected city. The flood defences we have put in place would accommodate and defend against the flooding of 2005. The city would be safe from flooding.”

While thinking about budgets, please have a really good look at the change in priorities that came with this country’s gold-plated implementation in 2000 of the EU Water Framework Directive. In my experience, the EA talks of little else, and explicitly admits that it and other directives changed its incentive from river management to biodiversity and water quality. Here’s what the National Flood Risk Management Strategy says: “In all instances, flood and coastal risk management should avoid damaging the environment . . . and wherever possible work with natural processes and always seek to provide environmental benefit, as required by the Habitats, Birds and Water Framework Directives.”

The directive was one of the first times the European Union invited the big green environmental organisations to get directly involved in policymaking. As one study of the episode concluded: “The environmental lobby was swift to capitalise on recent changes, and is in as strong a position as it has ever been to shape European water policy.”

Lord De Ramsey, who was the first chairman of the EA and retired in 1999, has this week criticised John Prescott’s decision to appoint the head of the RSPB as chief executive of the EA after he left, since she — Barbara Young — “put environmental concerns before timely maintenance”. This is a serious charge.

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