(This is the commentary from Liberator 364, out next week)
As floodwater inundated some of the most true blue parts of the Thames Valley, David Cameron may have had cause to regret his comment about getting rid of ‘green crap’ from government policy.
‘Crap’, in some cases quite literally, was filling homes in areas that normally back his party, and the public perception in January and February of the government’s flood relief efforts was pretty poor.
Further west, things were if anything even worse, with parts of Somerset under water for months and the Severn Valley inundated yet again.
It is hardly surprising that, when a disaster on this scale hits a country as little used to natural calamities as the UK, the cry goes up “they should do something about it”.
Widescale flooding makes proponents of a ‘small state’ look pretty silly, since only a state could remotely be equipped to provide both immediate relief and long-term resources for flood protection.
It also made the Conservatives look pretty silly, as their strictures about lack of resources and spending cuts dissolved as quickly as Somerset Levels with promises that money would be no object in preventing flooding, even if it was not clear what this promise included.
Climate change deniers joined the ranks of those made to look foolish by the bad weather this winter as they went through contortions to explain that two months of the heaviest rain for centuries was pure coincidence and nothing whatever to do with carbon emissions.
But those who say that “something must be done” and that everywhere should be protected from any conceivable flood risk may also have questions to answer as the waters retreat. If homes are built on floodplains, they will be prone to being flooded, and more so with climate change.
How much money should be spent on protecting them? Should this be limitless, as Cameron’s panicked response to the Thames Valley inundation suggested? Or do choices need to be made about where it is sensible and possible to defend, and whether attempting to prevent floods in some places serves no more useful purpose than would trying to resurrect Dunwich or other places lost to erosion on the east coast, where nature is being largely left to take its course.
Little can be done about settlements already built in flood-prone areas – or even below sea level – but something can be done about new building on floodplains. At the very least, it can be insisted that new homes built there are flood resilient – for example, with only garages at ground floor level.
Better still, building on floodplains could be avoided altogether, but that would mean the homes concerned must be built somewhere else.
In areas where scarcity of building land has led to floodplain construction, that might mean building on greenfield sites elsewhere, and accepting that this might be the price of avoiding flooded homes in the future.
How prepared are politicians to say both ‘no’ to spending on flood measures in places that cannot be defended and ‘yes’ to building on nearby areas instead of floodplains?
After all, there’s nothing quite like a threat to build on greenfield sites to get a Focus team swinging into action.