Water is as much a part of the landscape of Britain as England’s cathedral spires, or the mountains of Scotland and the valleys of Wales. The nation’s cities were built on rivers and its fortunes on the seas. There is an ancient and respectful relationship that recognises the capacity of water not only to sustain but to destroy.
This time last year it was water’s destructive capacities that dominated the headlines, as Cumbria experienced its third catastrophic flood in 10 years. On 5 December 2015, 341.4mm of rain fell on the Honister Pass. Rivers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and northern England saw record peak flows. The volume of water racing down the Eden, Tyne and Lune peaked at around 1,700 cubic metres per second – enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall in London up to the dome in less than a minute. Between November and January, more rain fell than in any similar period since records began in 1910.
It would be unusual to have another period as wet so soon, and the Met Office, waiting to see whether high or low pressure dominates in the coming days, predicts a relatively calm Christmas. Yet the 21st century has already seen more extreme weather events in Britain than the whole of the previous 100 years, and Carlisle, where some people are still not home again after last year, has had three once-in-a-lifetime events since 2005.
In these circumstances, flood resilience should be a matter of intense and consistent focus in government. Under the aegis of Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary, this does not seem to be the case. In September, the National Flood Resilience review predicted possible increases in rainfall of up to 30%, a prediction welcomed by climate experts as an overdue recognition of the effect of global warming on the weather, but dismissed as an exercise in reassurance by local government sources, infuriated by 50% cuts in flood defence spending last year.
MPs on the environment select committee believe that the existing framework of flood protection and resilience needs a complete overhaul and it should be separated from the rest of the Environment Agency. They want a national floods commissioner for England (powers over water management are devolved), with new regional and coastal bodies to coordinate local management and protection. The Green Alliance is equally critical of a system that it thinks too skewed towards dealing with the consequences of floods rather than stopping them happening. It is calling for a much bigger experiment in land management as a way of absorbing floodwater, and wants to develop a post-Brexit system of farm payments that subsidises land use as a weapon against downstream flooding. Local councils want to have overall responsibility of flood schemes for themselves and to set their own priorities for flood defence.
What this adds up to is that, after 20 years of managing adaptation and mitigation of the effects of climate change, the Environment Agency may no longer be fit for purpose as it is. It needs at the least better partnerships with local players. But institutional reform is a challenge for a government still fixed on cutting costs. The £700m for flood defence and resilience promised in the budget, like the soldiers and sandbags ready to go, are welcome. But if it rains like it rained last year, there will be flooding. And there needs to be bigger thinking about how to stop it.