Sunday, 10 January 2016

What does the history of flooding tell us about Britain?

Has anything happened while we've been away? Oh, we see that it is has - splits on both sides of the political landscape, confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran (probably the most significant thing that's happened overall, to be honest), and yet another wave of floods across England, Wales and Scotland.

Since in the day job we've been writing a book about water politics in post-war Britain, and since one of the chapters is about the momentous East Anglian flooding crisis of 1953, let's take the latter first, shall we? The other elements can wait. They don't seem to be going anywhere fast, and the floods tell us quite a lot about the modern United Kingdom that might not be enormously and immediately apparent. And - who knows? - we might be able to bring a bit of history and research (as well as History with a capital 'H') to the understanding of events that are likely to become more and more common as our weather and climate changes.

First, the reaction to recent flooding tells us that the comradeship, the charity and the sheer solidarity of the British is pretty well intact. In 1953, offers flooded in to the Government to help the people of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and London when thousands were made homeless - with over three hundred people killed on land - when an enormous storm surge and very high spring tides overtopped outdated and in some places non-existent defences (above). If you take a look at the files in the UK National Archives (believe us, we've been through them so you don't have to do it), individuals, companies, charities and fellow-feeling local authorities flooded Whitehall with offers of help - including, touchingly, lots of lots of not-so-well-off Britons and very precariously-situated companies who offered cars, vans, trucks, blankets, clothes, toys, shelter and (perhaps just as important) plain old sympathy. In the end, the Lord Mayor's Appeal alone raised over £5m - perhaps over £130m today. The Women's Institute and the Women's Voluntary Service were singled out for praise across the board; even the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Blue Cross, pulled legions of struggling dogs, cats and rabbits out of the morass. And similarly today, small donations and apparently little sums are helping with the clean-up in (for instance) Aberdeenshire, volunteers including carpenters and builders have been turning up to help out, and Daily Mail readers (whatever one thinks of the merits of the paper) have raised over £1m in just a few days. Perhaps it doesn't seem like such a big point. I bet it does if you're standing knee-deep in dirty water in what used to be your front room. The charitable impulse of 1953? It's still there.

The second thing we might point out is that something rather less uncontroversial is still more than with us. That's our adversarial political system, in which each disaster must be a catastrophe in part caused by the Government, and each disaster must see the Opposition in full cry. In 1953, Labour's deputy leader Herbert Morrison went in hard on 'austerity' and 'cuts' to the flood defence budget, only to get the wrong end of a verbal beating from Housing Minister Harold Macmillan, saying that though coastal erosion budgets going to local authorities had been cut, coastal defence budgets had always stayed much as they were under Labour. Who, Macmillan made clear, had mounted their own cuts during the Korean War rearmament, all the better to redirect resources towards the Cold War struggle in East Asia. You can read the whole debate here, if you'd like, via the wonders of the internet. Morrison later had to backtrack a bit (though only a bit, given the disingenuous nature of some of Macmillan's remarks) after his remarks went down like a lead balloon while people were still baling out their homes. Labour has actually done rather better on this front in 2015, asking pointed questions rather than shouting - and probably has a much better case, given the number and scale of the flood defence operations that were cancelled in the Coalition's early infrastructure-eating austerity phase early in the last Parliament. As well as being bolstered in their focused and detailed sallies by the extent to which Labour increased flood defence spending after the disastrous floods of 2007. Now the less-than-noisy tone is partly down to the fact that the Labour Party is busy forming a circular firing squad right now, but at least the Shadow Chancellor's call for a national consensus - and cross-party agreements - on this one is to be applauded. There's no point chucking the blame around for now. There'll be plenty of time for that later.

The third and last element here concerns the wider picture. It's just far, far too easy to focus on 'hard' defence - sea walls, barriers, barrages and the like. That's not how this is going to work out, and it was an entirely understandable mistake for the Government in 1953 to entrust the post-floods enquiry into the hands of oceanographers and hydrographic experts. As one might expect, they recommended better forecasting, mapping, meteorology - all very important, but not really getting to grips with some of the planning and housing issues that had made many Britons living (for instance) in temporary accommodation very near the coast far, far more vulnerable than they might otherwise have been. Much better to look at the estuarial system as a whole, to think about where the housing was going to be put in, to give back and retreat rather than just employ steel and sand, to in a word be more flexible. Actually, the previous government once issued quite a good consultative paper on this - Making Space for Water (2004), which eventually helped to inform the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010. Key to all that? The idea that some areas along Britain's vast coastline would have to be given up to the surrounding oceans, that a single authority should be in charge of all these issues in each region, and that all individual and collective planning decisions should be informed by, and feed into, the single strategy that's settled across the country. Ever since the massive over-emphasis on dredging that seemed all that our elected policymakers could find to pander to during and after South West England's 2014 flood crisis, all our energies seem to have gone into 'hard' solutions such as making our rivers drain more quickly via the simple-but-misguided technique of just throwing technology at the problem. That's as badly-informed (and with less excuse) as the reaction in 1953. We need much 'softer' ideas, including thinking about our land use and farming modes among the watersources of upland Britain, and not just a load of our money turned into seawalls.

So although there are no direct 'lessons from history' - that would be much too crass and straightforward a claim - there are definitely cadences and approaches that we can adapt from past flooding experiences. The first is to rely on the little battalions of local people, churches, volunteers and charities to come to the aid of our fellow Britons. That'll probably always remain a thick and sturdy crutch to lean on. The second conclusion we can draw is that Westminster and Whitehall and highly adversarial. We knew that already, but it hasn't got us all that far in the past when we've been faced with these crises. Can we do better, and establish long-term policies that run across and between governments? Lastly, we know now that we face stormier seas and wetter, more unpredictable futures. We have to get prepared, raise our eyes from our mere concrete 'defences', and think how we're going to adapt to a warmer world. History and policy? Maybe there's something in it.