13 Feb 2014

Flooding blame game drowns out vital logic of managed retreat

It is quite natural, right and proper that in the immediacy of what is happening in the UK, from politicians down, it is helping people out with flooded homes that is top priority.


But what’s dispiriting is how, in the political world, that seems to be the only thing on the agenda beyond scapegoating, and this is as depressing as it is dangerous.

With remarkable cynicism the Prime Minister David Cameron wants it both ways.

This week, even as Downing Street was beating Communities Secretary Eric Pickles back in to his box after he questioned the expertise of the Environment Agency (EA) and its boss Chris Smith, the same Mr Cameron was standing on Chesil Beach refusing to support Mr Smith.

He can’t have it both ways and he should not try to, in the midst of a crisis.

Read more: the Severn bore comes – and the levee breaks…

Like many the PM and now Mr Pickles (re-launching himself in the commons as the EA’s greatest living fan) should both reflect on how scarcely one single flood management expert has sought to criticise either Mr Smith or the EA.

Nor has their very own Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Their collective silence should count for more than it has with yah boo blame game political leaders, and some in the media too.

What should cause greater alarm however is the sheer staggering short-termism of the debate.

When Mr Smith raised the reality that we have now to make choices as to what we protect, he was howled down.

He may as well have suggested we shoot flood victims on sight for negligence.

Yet “managed retreat” from floodwaters has been accepted practice for years. Here in Britain.

The sacrifice of productive farmland and – yes – houses, to the floodwaters and coastal sea erosion has been going on for years.

It is more than a decade since I stood in what had been fields in East Essex and we filmed the North Sea inundating hitherto productive arable land after the earth sea-walls had been bulldozed.
Yes – a decade ago.

Read more: more storms, more floods and politicians blaming each other

Not a peep, not a whimper. Not a yelp of controversy.

So why when the obvious reality of managing retreat to the North Sea is established, does the very notion of discussing this in inland flooding areas cause alarm and all manner of hysterics?

We have thousands of miles of indefensible coastline. The economics of retreat are obvious and the argument won. Mr Smith merely extended the obvious logic to inland flood plains.

Yet the debate about defence versus managed retreat inland is struggling to be heard amidst the howling that “something must be done by someone else for me”.

Of course it is about drainage and dredging. But the logic of retreat and managing as the most sustainable and workable option in some areas must surely at least be heard amid the current din, blame and hysteria.

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