Christopher Booker: How Green Ideology Turned A Deluge Into A Flood
It has taken six long weeks to uncover the real hidden reasons why, from the West Country to the Thames Valley, the flooding caused by the wettest January on record has led to such an immense national disaster. Only now have the two ‘smoking guns’ finally come to light which show just how and why all this chaos and misery has resulted directly from a massive system failure in the curious way our country is governed.
Because I live in Somerset, I first became aware that something very disturbing was going on back around the new year. As it became clear that the flood waters on the Somerset Levels were beginning to rise dangerously high for the third year running, I set out to find technical experts who could explain just what had gone wrong.
I discovered what I was looking for in the members of a small task force set up by the Royal Bath and West agricultural society, which from the mid-18th century had organised the effective draining of the Levels, after they were first reclaimed from a marshy wilderness by Dutch engineers in the reign of Charles I. These farmers, with long practical experience of working with the local drainage boards, along with an eminent engineer who chairs the Wessex flood defence committee, were in no doubt as to why in recent years the Levels have become subject to abnormally prolonged and destructive flooding.
The problem began, they said, in 1996 when the new Environment Agency took overall responsibility for managing Britain’s rivers. These men had been alarmed to see a sharp decline in regular dredging. The rivers have always been crucial to keeping the Levels drained, because they provide the only way to allow flood waters to escape to the sea. Equally worrying was how scores of pumping stations which carry water to the rivers were being neglected. And although the drainage boards were still allowed to operate, their work was now being seriously hampered by a thicket of new EU waste regulations, zealously enforced by the EA. These made it almost impossible to dispose sensibly of any silt removed from the maze of drainage ditches which are such a prominent feature of the Levels.
But all this got markedly worse after 2002 when the Baroness Young of Old Scone, a Labour peeress, became the agency’s new chief executive. Dredging virtually ceased altogether. The rivers began dangerously to silt up. The Baroness, who had previously run the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England, talked obsessively about the need to promote the interests of wildlife. She was famously heard to say that she wanted to see ‘a limpet mine put on every pumping station’. The experts I was talking to had no doubt that this apparent wish to put the cause of nature over that of keeping the Levels properly drained was eventually going to create precisely the kind of disaster we are seeing today. Their message as to what needs to be done couldn’t have been clearer.
First, they wanted to see a resumption of dredging those choked rivers. Second, they wanted responsibility for managing the Levels to be handed back to those local bodies which kept them effectively drained for generations, without having the EA constantly on their backs.