Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Green perspective on flooding on the Somerset Levels

RHL 15-2-14


The Green approach is to view the Levels as an ecosystem, thinking about the interaction of all the factors involved, from the atmosphere, through the unique wetland with its rich biodiversity and its human settlements right out to the Severn estuary; all have their part to play.

The solution to the serious and unusual flooding will not come from any one pet project, be it tree planting or watercourse management. There is no one single remedy, but a large number of works that need to be done, and there is a need for effective co-ordination between the many players and stakeholders, as well as massive financial investment.

Flood defences: the Government’s choices

At a time of unprecedented demand for Environment Agency (EA) services, its budget is being cut.

The EA has lost 1,700 jobs (coincidentally the same as the number of properties that has been flooded this winter). Morale is low in the Agency.

Its budget will be cut by 15% (£656m in 2011-12 to £546m 2015-16)

300 flood defence projects have been shelved[1].

Chris Smith, chair of the Environment Agency is paid £100K pa for a 3 day week to defend these budgetary arrangements. His views on dredging may be influenced by the costs of that operation. 

The Government needs to understand the concept of “investment”, that £1 spent on flood defences can save up to £8 in flood damage. To look only at the bottom line of this year’s expenditure, as the Coalition has tended to do, is an extremely foolish and blinkered approach that may prove to be responsible for a significant part of the present difficulty. Money was found and even created by Government to cover the self-inflicted wounds of the banking system. The same must be done to address the injury to the real economy that is being done by ill-considered Government economic policies.

Government must also understand that the outlay on flood defences is a big job-creation scheme, which will help to reduce rural poverty.

RHL 15-2-2014

“Managed Retreat” Don’t give up already!

Some are saying that the Levels are a lost cause, that we should let them go back to nature.

If fossil fuels continue to be consumed as recklessly as this Government intends, and global warming continues beyond the present 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels to +2°C and even +4°C, managed retreat from the Levels and many other areas of the UK may well become necessary, but to talk about “managed retreat” at this point in time is sheer defeatism.

It smacks of the common, illogical denier argument “Man-made climate change is not happening, and if it is, it is too late to do anything about it”.

Note that Owen Paterson as a “lukewarmer” holds the unsubstantiated belief that the effects of +2C warming will be minor. His view should be strongly challenged by all who interview him, in that we are seeing the current flooding at only +0.8°C above pre-industrial levels. Paterson’s foolish belief is driving his cutting of the budget of the Environment Agency and of Climate Change mitigation work.

Clearly Paterson is not the right man to be Environment Secretary. Cameron should sack him and put in place someone who accepts what the climate scientists are saying.

The seductive call of “managed retreat” ignores not just the plight of individuals who would lose their homes and livelihoods, but also the huge value of the food produced on the Levels and the rich biodiversity that would also be lost.

Climate Change

We do not say “This present flooding is specifically due to climate change”, but we can say that it is consistent with climate science’s predictions, and if global warming is allowed to continue, this kind of event will become ever more frequent.

Basic physics teaches us that warmer air holds more water, and climatology predicts that rainfall in a warmer world will be more intense. This is confirmed by observations[2].

Climate science predicts that increased flooding will happen everywhere in the UK[3], and this prediction is borne out by what we are now observing.

Studies show that the events we are looking at in Somerset are part of a trend.

The Jet Stream, which has been driving the succession of storms we have experienced in January 2014, has been abnormally far south for many months, and the rapid warming of the Arctic which is taking place is a significant component of this abnormality.

Government should take the flooding that is happening in Somerset and elsewhere as a wake-up call to take climate change seriously. This will only happen if Paterson is replaced.

[see also: Is the flooding on the levels down to climate change?]

Responding to the flooding

There is no single magic bullet solution to the present (and future) flooding, but rather a number of remedies that must be put in place simultaneously. This is going to be costly, but this Government has to learn that there is more to governing a country than trying to reduce the numbers at the bottom line of a balance sheet, that there is a real economy and society outside of the Westminster bubble.

This is not the time to argue which measure is better and which is worse. It is not a case of either-or, but of both-and. Government must accept that its lazy and parsimonious approach both to climate change and to flood defences is in part to blame, and that it has a responsibility now to supply adequate funds to remedy the situation.

Tree planting

Given that we must expect more intense rainfall, it is important to manage the whole catchment area of the Levels.

Planting trees on uplands and hill slopes had a dramatic effect on the hills of Pontbren[6],[7] ; a study showed that it reduces runoff by a factor of 67 times[8].  George Monbiot advocates this solution enthusiastically[9], but unfortunately has adopted an either/or approach of trees vis a vis dredging. The realistic approach, given the severity of the problem, is both/and.

Clearly this tree planting must be tested in Somerset as soon as possible, although it must be accepted that the situation is different in Somerset from that in Wales, since the ratio of hill to flat land is far smaller in Somerset than in Wales.

On the levels themselves, greater use of willow will help to lower the water table. Willow can be used as biomass source of renewable energy.

Monbiot argues that the EU Single Farm Payment encourages farming at the top of watersheds, and will obstruct the planting of trees[10]. Our Green MEPs should investigate this claim, and if it is borne out, should make it a matter of high priority to change the EU law, and the Green Party prospective MEPs should complain loudly at this piece of EU nonsense, to show that we are not EU poodles, but that we really mean it when we say that we support membership of the EU, but that we also want to reform it.

Watercourse management

Polders can be used to hold water back in the higher reaches of a stream, using designated areas that can be filled at times of peak water flow, and then emptied when the peak is passed. This is a historic technology on the Levels as in many other places, but it is time now to review the system, perhaps with a fresh view by experts from the Netherlands.

Soil structure

Intensive farming practices reliant on man made fertiliser are more prone to runoff and siltation downstream than organically farmed soils, which have a fibrous structure that can absorb more water. Therefore organic farming methods should be encouraged upstream of flood-prone areas.


Regular dredging of the rivers was stopped about 20 years ago. It is very likely that cost-cutting was at least one of the motivations for this decision. Local farmers and residents are very strongly in favour of restarting dredging. The Environment Agency (EA) is reluctant to agree, and is bringing some spurious arguments to bear, possibly because they are averse to the cost of dredging.

The main argument is that it will only increase the capacity of the Levels by a small percentage. This is true, if the situation is viewed statically, as if it were a bath. But viewed dynamically, as a flowing system, it is blindingly obvious that a river 6’ deep can carry more water away to the sea than one 6” deep.

Presumably the EA holds records of river depth, but if they do not, anecdotal evidence from an angler suggests that the river in some places has changed from 15’ deep to 5’ deep.

The second main argument is that dredging one area can cause problems further downstream. This contradicts their argument that dredging makes little difference, but the obvious answer is that dredging must start downstream and work upstream.

The third argument is that there are “pinch points” that dredging cannot assist. There are hydrological workarounds for this specific problem, which centre on speeding up the water as it passes through the pinch point.

The weakness of these and other arguments that are put forward suggest that they are rationalisations, designed to cover up the cut in funding that has been imposed by the Coalition.


During the present crisis, the cost of the pumping operation has been £100,000 per week. Pumps are needed all year round to keep the Levels clear, since much of the area is below  sea level.

Since diesel fuel is expensive and likely to become more so in future, it would be sensible to look at the feasibility of installing wind pumps to cope with regular pumping requirements, and hold the diesel pumps in readiness for emergencies.

Electric pumps could also be used, and could be set to run only or mainly when National Grid is in surplus.

Holding back the tides

There is a need for sluice gates (called clyse or clyce in Somerset) that are normally open to allow river water to flow out to sea, but that close at high tides to stop sea water from flowing back upriver. Discussion of where to put the gates date back to 1939. It is time to stop talking and start building.

In the medium turn, a Bridgewater Bay Lagoon, as well as generating renewable energy, could be used to lower the sea levels at critical times. 

Communities and Householders

Local communities have, as might be expected, already displayed huge solidarity and resilience, in coping with extremely difficult conditions.

There is more that householders can do in flood proofing their houses and land with dykes, skirts and flood boards, rewiring the houses so that the electrics are not vulnerable to water, and using solid flooring. All of this costs money, and central government should help with these costs, as part payment for their part in the tragedy.

A small token effort from households is to buffer the rains with generous use of water butts which are drained when the rains have eased off.

Solid drives and patios can be replaced with materials that allow rain water to pass through into the ground.


It is obvious that we should stop building on flood plains, but it continues to happen. One reason is that building on greenfield/forested uplands is more difficult and costly, and would create a planning furore. We desperately need housing, but the dilemma imposed is acute.

One solution is to go for new houses built on stilts.

Coordination between Agencies

There are a number of organisations involved in responding to floods, including Local Authorities, Environment Agency, Internal Drainage Boards, the National Farmers Union, Wildlife Trusts, and the Forestry Commission. This is a recipe for confusion and failure. Clear coordination is necessary.

How can we afford flood defences?[This update added Feb 7th]

This question begs the converse: How can we afford not to? We can put a cost on lost homesteads and farmland, including the value of the food it produces year on year, but how can we put a price on the biodiversity, and the impact on regional and national morale of simply letting a large area of beautiful and historic land go to ruin?

Somerset is just one instance of a huge national problem. Government is just now waking up to the realisation that we are going to have to carry out major flood defence works throughout the British Isles.

Flooding is a crisis, but crisis consists of both danger and opportunity. The danger lies in defeatism, in retreat, or in half-measures. The opportunity lies in a big stimulus to the national economy stemming from a major flood defence effort.

It is true that there is a large price tag on flood defences, a price that has been magnified by past inaction, for instance in stopping dredging 20 years ago, but there are also valuable lessons to be learned in Somerset which can be applied elsewhere.

First, flood defence is an investment. Money spent on flood defence saves on money spent cleaning up after floods, with a ratio of 1:8 in some areas. The ratio will vary from area to area.

Second, must the money be borrowed from banks and financial institutions, worsening the deficit?

Maybe some can be borrowed. There might be an advantage to borrow from some of the banks which have been part-privatised as a result of the 2009 crisis. Banks like RBS might be strengthened by lending to a project that will stabilise our country and ensure its prosperity.

The Green Investment Bank might be an appropriate source of loans.

Application of Green Wage Subsidy[1] (where JSA is converted into a subsidy for socially and environmentally beneficial work) to the new employment entailed in flood defence schemes will significantly reduce the wage bill, at no cost in the short term, to the Government. In fact there is a significant overall financial benefit from increasing employment levels with GWS[2].

Wages for labour will appear as a cost on a simplistic, financial balance-sheet approach to economics, but viewed as part of an entire economic, ecological and social  system, work creation, especially if it has the kind of beneficial results that flood defence schemes have, should be seen as a benefit.

Finally, it is irrational for the Government to have to borrow at interest from the very banks that it has, over the last five years, rescued by providing some four hundred billion pounds. If it is correct to rescue financial institutions from  a disaster of their own making, it is also correct to rescue the very land and people that the Government exists to serve. Therefore the Government can create the money needed to complete the flood defences. So long as the work is carried out efficiently and well, the money created will be converted into real value, and therefore such creation will not be inflationary.

If such a solution is conceptually too radical to be acceptable to the present Government, the money can be issued instead as low interest loans to the contractors.

In conclusion, flood defence work has to be done. If a thing is physically necessary, Government has the power to make it financially possible.


Steart Head

From Wikipedia (retrieved Thursday, 06 February 2014)
The Steart peninsula has flooded many times during the last millennium. The most severe recent floods occurred in 1981. By 1997, a combination of coastal erosion, current sea level rise and wave action had made some of the defences distinctly fragile and at risk from failure. As a result in 2002 The Environment Agency produced the Stolford to Combwich Coastal Defence Strategy Study to examine options for the future.[1] In July 2010, the Environment Agency presented a plan to convert the peninsula into wetland habitat,[2]costing £17–20 million.,[3] which includes land purchase costs of £5–7 million. It will be the largest wetland habitat creation scheme in England.[2]Work began on the programme in May 2012.[4]

The EA site[11] says
In May 2012 the Environment Agency began construction work to create one of the UK’s largest new reserves for wildlife. Over 400 hectares of the Steart Peninsula will be turned into wildlife-rich habitats including saltmarsh and freshwater wetland. These habitats provide vital feeding and breeding grounds for wading birds and wildfowl. Importantly the scheme will also provide better protection for Steart village and Stert Drove against flooding. There will also be improved access for people with disabilities, horse riders, cyclists and walkers with new panoramic viewpoints and wildlife observation hides.

Basically, the defence of the Steart Peninsula as a whole was not cost effective, so the EA has retreated, allowing the creation of a wildlife wetland.
It cannot be said that the conversion of Steart has in any way contributed to the present flooding.
There is concern that the banks at the mouth of the Parrett could shift in future as a result of the change. This might need dredging. 
It is more likely that there is local criticism from a Conservative MP based on the fact of millions being spent on wildlife, but little on dredging.
One part of this wetland will be paid for as an “offset” for development on wetland by the Port of Bristol Authority. This is a separate issue, and does not bear directly onto the flooding problem.

  1. The 2014 flooding of the Levels is expected to be repeated and become more intense if global warming is not addressed seriously.
  2. That means that Owen Paterson must be replaced with a Minister who accepts climate science.
  3. The Green Party repudiates “Managed Retreat” as an immediate solution to the Levels.
  4. Government must accept that its budget cutting must be reversed, and that there is more to running a country than minimising the bottom line of a balance sheet.
  5. Green MEPs shall find if EU laws inhibit tree planting, and if so, will work to change the law.
  6. The problem must be addressed as a whole, implementing many solutions at once, rather than concentrating on one to the exclusion of others. Tree planting, watercourse management, dredging, a tidal sluice and no more building on flood plains must all be included.
  7. A properly funded approach is needed, with new money, recognising the cost-effectiveness of flood defence, an emphasis on coordination between the bodies involved.

This brief discussion was prepared by Richard Lawson, Press Officer for North Somerset Green Party, at the request of Molly Scott Cato, lead South West Green Party candidate for the May 2014 European Elections.
Any errors are the responsibility of Richard Lawson
Ffi 01934853606
Thursday, 06 February 2014

[2] Westra et al
[10] Monbiot, ibid.


Biff Vernon said...

Some excellent work there, well done. Here's a little extra:

David Flint said...

Very good Richard. Let's hope you get some press cover.

David Flint said...

Very good Richard. Let's hope you get some press cover.

Richard Lawson said...

Thanks Biff. Your piece on statistics is very helpful.

David, I sent it out to local media. Absolutely zero interest. However, a German TV crew came over (German equivalent of BBC) and did an interview with me down beside the floods. Make of that what you will.