10 Feb 2014

Armchair hydrologists go to war

“I’m not entirely sure what we got out of this afternoon,” Eric Pickles told the Commons after 50 minutes of questioning. He’s not wrong there. This was, as one Tory MP put it, “not exactly parliament at its best.”

MPs with little knowledge of how rivers work were blithely calling for dredging everywhere. Like armchair generals we have “armchair hydrologists”, one former minister told me.

Eric Pickles took no notes throughout some pretty detailed questions on flooding, the topic he temporarily leads on for the government while the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson recovers from an operation on a detached retina. An ally might say that was because Eric knows his way round the brief so well. A critic might think the communities secretary was a little too blithe about all this.


We know that Owen Paterson has complained to No 10 about Eric Pickles’ attacks on the Environment Agency and has even communicated his sympathy and support to Lord (Chris) Smith, the body’s head and the man Eric Pickles suggested wouldn’t be missed. Eric Pickles told Tories in private that he had to take a pot shot at the Environment Agency to “draw the poison” on the whole saga. No 10 told MPs, who thought Mr Pickles had over-stepped the mark starting a blame game with Chris Smith, that it was all Eric’s idea.

There was talk before the floods that Eric Pickles might be a marked man in the reshuffle expected after the European Parliament and local elections in May. It’s hard to imagine he’s helped his chances of survival in the last day or so.

It may or may not be comfort to those at risk of flooding in the next two to three days but there was a civil contingencies Cobra exercise across departments two years ago that quite closely matches the scenario being endured today. It was called “Operation Watermark” and it imagined a period of protracted and heavy rainfall across the country with tidal surges too. In that case the ministers ended up evacuating (on paper) 10,000 residents from their homes in Lincolnshire.

What we’ve had, the experts agree, is a perfect storm of tidal surges, spring tides, shallow channels and  biblical rain that was a remote possibility under the traditonal calculations. We now have to throw out the traditional calculations, prepare for more perfect storms and revisit the sums to be spent.

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