One of the most striking images of the recent floods that have hit the South West has been the long term flooding of the Somerset Levels and the helplessness expressed by everyone from local residents to Prince Charles. Part of that helplessness is undoubtedly because the floods are caused by unpredictable weather patterns but it is also because people don’t know who to expect help from and who to complain to if that help doesn’t arrive.
The residents of Muchelny and the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset Ian Liddell-Grainger have so little real influence and control over their circumstances that they are reduced to shouting at visiting ministers or calling the Environment Agency “pathetic”. To date the Chair of the Environment Agency Lord Smith is yet to visit the flooded parts of the Levels, though he has started a national debate about whether flood defence funding should be targeted at cities where more people benefit. Its notable that the public’s anger is not aimed at the Local Authority despite the fact that the flooding of the Levels is partly surface water flooding and therefore the Council’s responsibility. Somerset County Council did act. They declared a state of emergency, because their resources were overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, George Monbiot has stirred up a debate about the relative merits of dredging the River Parrett, whether floodplains should be allowed to flood and the management of the uplands surrounding floodplains – and climate change.
Now David Cameron has taken charge of the Cobra meetings and announced £100m of extra funding. The money is needed but what an odd way of allocating tax revenue to manage flooding. The whole episode exposes the difficulty of trying to manage local unpredictable events like flooding from London in two ways. Firstly, abstract conversations about the merits of dredging over land management and town v country don’t engage ordinary people. Unfortunately, the flood management debate remains the preserve of experts and local knowledge is too easily dismissed. Secondly, the system to manage flooding is fragmented and is only capable of being joined up and resourced at the highest level, meaning that the only politician in the country worth lobbying is the Prime Minister.
At the LGIU as part of our work with the Local Government Flood Forum we will be exploring ways of giving local people a greater say in decisions that affect their homes and communities. This might mean greater local influence over the Environment Agency budget or greater powers for local authorities if they commit to working in partnership across flooded areas. We would welcome advice and support from anyone who wishes to contribute to this debate – please get in touch by emailing Andy Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography by S. Rae