Time after time, UK governments have denied the dangers of climate change. Some of the misery caused by the floods could have been prevented, had multiple warnings been heeded about how we use and protect our land.
Two years ago, the south of England experienced its wettest period for almost 250 years as tidal surges battered East Anglia, threatening the country’s most productive farmland. Flimsy silt and clay flood defences, at least 50 years old and fast deteriorating, proved no match for the forces of nature.
Although damaging sea water seeped into some of the nation’s finest acres, disaster was avoided – just. “But we were inches away from something terrible,” said a senior director of Norfolk county council as he viewed what seemed a pending catastrophe. We had been warned.
Monitoring the effectiveness of the Environment Agency – the body responsible for managing flood risk from main rivers and the sea – the National Audit Office (NAO) recalled a year ago that these extreme conditions tested the country’s resilience to adverse weather and its consequences. Coastal flooding exacerbated by climate change, it noted, is one of the highest-priority risks on the UK’s national risk register of civil emergencies.
Britain’s vulnerability to climate change
As an island that once prided itself as a model of farming efficiency, Britain – particularly England – is vulnerable. Some of our best land in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire lies at or below sea level. Much of it was drained by Dutch engineers through the centuries, with a final stretch near Kings Lynn – a six-mile water channel – only completed in 1950. Yet successive governments have been in denial about the impact of climate change, rising sea levels, and increasingly volatile weather patterns on these productive acres, literally the bread, cereal and veg bowl of Britain.
Ministers cannot plead ignorance. Four years before the NAO report, around the time of the 2010 general election, a lengthy study from the Government Office for Science, Foresight Land Use Futures, warned that 57% of our best (grade 1) land and 13% of grade 2 occupied flood plains. Not for nothing did it describe these golden acres as “an important asset in terms of national food security”.
Today we produce 62% of our own food, down since our 1984 peak of 78%. Alarmed by government complacency, the National Farmers’ Union calculated earlier this year that the country has the potential to reach 85% self-sufficiency, with higher productivity, more investment in research and development and, of course, greater emphasis on flood defences to withstand future tidal surges and rising sea levels. Do nothing, says the NFU, and domestic food production will assuredly fall below 50%.
It is, after all, only 62 years since a high spring tide, driven by a severe storm, engulfed the east coast of England as water rose to six metres above normal sea level, overwhelming part of East Anglia. More than 300 people lost their lives.
The Foresight report should have been a wake-up call, with its warning that either governments provide high levels of flood protection to resist rising coastal threats, or they abandon large tracts to the sea; presciently, it even cautioned of the threat from storm surges back in 2010. But what happened? One senior member of a lead expert group behind the report told me they had been “leant on” by the then coalition government to water down some of their recommendations. They were seen as too controversial and expensive.
The importance of debate
One inescapable conclusion emerged from interviews I undertook in 2014-15 for my book Whose Land is Our Land with farmers, landowners and council leaders charged with co-ordinating flood defences: the indifference of a government seemingly in denial, wedded to a complex cost-benefit analysis that ostensibly puts the defence of property (one in six homes were at risk of flooding in England, even before the current deluge in the north) ahead of farmland protection.
What we have lacked is an informed debate on the pressures facing our land – increasing demand for food, energy, water and housing – when we should be adapting to and mitigating the impact of climate change. But that means planning ahead, prioritising resources and, yes, borrowing as a nation to invest in and safeguard our future – unlikely at a time when the very concept of planning, still less long-term investment, has become a pejorative term.
As things stand, as Amyas Morse, head of the NAO observed a year ago, the Environment Agency will face difficult decisions “about whether to continue maintaining [flood defence assets] in some areas or let them lapse”.