Roger Ratcliffe on
defence of only
part of the realm

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So far this year we have experienced two unseasonal heatwaves. There was that unprecedented February scorcher, then an Easter that managed to make Morecambe as sweltering as Majorca. With them came a spate of wildfires that even performed the miracle of enshrouding Brexit headlines in a haze of smoke. Now the tabloids are talking up prospects for the UK enjoying its hottest summer on record. Against this sweaty background, I’m probably one of the few people who keep thinking about floods.

I can’t get out of my mind one critically important floods story that Europe somehow managed to push into relative obscurity. Not so much a case of burying bad news as drowning it? On 9 May the chair of the government’s Environment Agency for England, Emma Howard Boyd, revealed that its long-term strategy to deal with the effects of climate change would mean those communities that are regularly engulfed by floodwater may eventually have to be abandoned. The words she used were “potentially moving communities out of harm’s way”. The strategy stated: “Simply building bigger and bigger walls as defences was not the solution.”

An item about it on the BBC’s Look North TV news for Yorkshire showed archive footage of the floods that swamped 3,500 homes and businesses in the Calder Valley on Boxing Day 2015. I shudder to imagine how people there felt on learning that despite £70 million of new flood defences, these may eventually not be enough to save communities like Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd. Nor will it have gone down well at villages in the Dearne and Dove Valleys of South Yorkshire, where more defences have been built since monsoon-like rains devastated the area in June 2007, or with those who live in the 4,000-plus homes flooded when Storm Desmond hit Cumbria and Lancashire in 2015.

Let’s be clear about what the Environment Agency’s strategy means. Northern communities – where most flooding has occurred – might at some future date be cast adrift if it becomes too expensive to protect them from climate change. So I’m bound to ask the question, if floods regularly engulf silver-spooned towns like Henley-on-Thames or Maidenhead in the south will they be abandoned too? I think we know the answer to that one.

Actually, I’ve heard the Environment Agency’s new strategy before, but didn’t believe it. One of its civil engineers working on flood schemes along the Humber told me he thought the future policy would be to protect land and communities only where was a “socio-economic case for doing so”. On the Humber alone, that would ultimately leave 4,000 properties without flood defences.

What concerns me is that this policy is being hardened well in advance of actual needs being established. It’s all really about cash, and the Environment Agency gets its funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which has been forced to cut its spending by an average of 30 per cent because of austerity.

Currently flood defence schemes in England resulting from those floods in 2015 are costing £4.4 billion. It is against this spending commitment that the Environment Agency’s declared policy of potentially abandoning future flood-hit communities should be seen. But compare it with the £56 billion being spent on an HS2 railway project that few people outside Westminster want. I know what my priority would be.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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