Leading article

Why can’t we go Dutch on flood defence?

A fraction of the money we spend subsidising green energy could keep our homes truly safe from flooding

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

As the chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, observed this week, there is a bizarre dislocation between the government’s pronouncements on climate change and its attitude towards spending on flood defences. Only a month ago, David Cameron was at the Paris climate summit lending his weight to apocalyptic warnings of flood and tempest unless the world acted quickly to reduce carbon emissions. Yet with tracts of northern cities underwater, his government continues with a make-do-and-mend flood-defence policy which, never mind climate change, is incapable of dealing with the climate we already have.

While lecturing us on the threat of greater rainfall and rising sea levels, the government has reduced spending on flood defence. Every time we have floods, the Chancellor announces a few extra million, only to quietly slash funding once we have had a few dry months and the issue has disappeared from the political radar. This year, spending on river and sea defences — including capital expenditure and maintenance — will come to £695 million, a 4 per cent reduction in real terms over the past four years.

To put that into context, this year the government and consumers between them will spend £4.3 billion subsidising green energy. We keep being told that we cannot afford more money for flood walls and diversion channels, yet we are being forced to spend a far greater sum in an attempt to control the climate. Pursuing a policy of prevention rather than cure might be a sensible strategy with smoking-related diseases, but it is foolish when the preventative measure involves a grandiose and futile attempt to stop it raining so heavily and the curative one would consist of sound, practical measures to manage the flow of rivers.

A strategy to manage global temperatures through the control of carbon emissions — even if the shaky science behind it is correct — would only work if every country on Earth played ball and agreed to legally binding reductions on carbon emissions. As we found in Paris, few other countries will agree to this because they can see that it is economic growth which will save them from flooding and other climate-related disasters — voluntarily denying themselves sources of cheap energy will harm that growth.

In any case, we need enhanced flood defences, climate change or no climate change. The weather over the past month has been exceptional but — apart from the 12 inches of rain in 24 hours in one part of Cumbria, which set a record — it has not been unprecedented. You don’t have to look far around the walls of Carlisle or York to find notched lines marking the levels of previous floods which were nearly or just as high. Flooding has always been a part of life in many British towns; what has changed is the expectation of keeping dry.

The wealthier we become as a country, the better we ought to be at meeting that expectation. Transfer even a fraction of spending from the subsidy of renewables to flood defence and we could have a flood policy like that of the Netherlands, which in spite of having a quarter of the population of Britain has managed to find £1.9 billion to enhance its river defences. Diversion channels have been dug; areas of agricultural land are being used to create temporary reservoirs where floodwaters can be held back to prevent flooding of towns downstream; roads and houses are being raised or rebuilt off the floodplain.

In Britain, all the Environment Agency seems able to stretch to is a few raised walls. It is remarkable how many of the towns flooded over the past month — Carlisle, Cockermouth, York — had recently constructed flood walls which either failed or proved to be insufficiently high.

In Britain we build river defences to guard against a one-in-100-year event and sea defences against a one-in-200-year event. In the Netherlands, the figures are one in 1,250 years and one in 10,000 years.

Why does the government consider it acceptable that on average 1 per cent of properties in flood-prone areas are flooded each year? If one in every 100 properties every year burst into flames or suffered partial collapse, there would be outrage. Building regulations would be tightened, cowboy builders jailed. A flood can be just as devastating, yet the risk is treated as an occupational hazard of living near a river.

Not only are we failing to manage flood risk properly, we are condemning more and more people to live with the risk. In 2011, 11 per cent of all new homes in England were built in flood-risk areas. We have an incredibly restrictive planning system in many ways. Authorities will often prevent homes being built to avoid spoiling neighbours’ views, yet absurdly do not protect residents from the risk of being inundated by flood water.

For years, grim prophecies on climate change were used as an excuse to jack up fuel taxes. The danger now is that they are used to excuse the failure to deliver a proper flood-defence policy. The deputy chief executive of the Environment Agency, David Rooke, claimed today that thanks to climate change we are entering an age of ‘unknown extremes’. No we are not. The risks are well known; it is just that they have not been acted on thanks to penny-pinching and incompetence.

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  • Alberto

    Bonuses all round.

  • derekcolman

    The government is intent on creating a legacy. They imagine that they will go down in history as the men who saved the world. Reality is quite the opposite. They will go down in history as the men who watched their citizens drown in flood water while they frittered away our money on their vanity project. They will be ridiculed like Nero.

  • Migru Ghee

    Is this the elevated form of argument, one step up from the common Ukip gran who wonders about efficiency savings in foreign aid?

    • Mary Ann

      Don’t like to think of Grannies belonging to ukip, the image doesn’t fit.

  • Isage000

    This is precisely the type of blindingly obvious journalistic common sense that is all too rare in the press these days and justifies my subscription to the Spectator. Handing water management policy over to the Environment Agency, staffed by evangelistic environmental greens with wacko policies abandoning traditional waterway management such as regular ditch culvert and dredging work, has been an abject disaster. Fifteen years or so of silting up of the Parret first raised angry reaction in the Somerset Levels and in the Thames. It will go on as long as Westminster persists in condemning water management (like energy management) to ecoloon climate change quangocrats instead of traditional management of traditional storm rains by traditional competent hydrological engineers such as in Holland.

    • nouveaulite

      After six years of introspection, two and a half Sec States for the Environment and 65 odd floods later, we are finally beginning to think before acting? I’ll believe it when I see some peer-reviewed evidence.

  • Brian Simpson

    Ho dear common sense some thing thats in decline,been reported that UK cash is blown on EU defences.
    Its been reported that Brits have coughed up £46 million on EU flood defences while here in good hold Britian our defences have proved inadequate.
    I would suggest that money would be better spent on our people who are suffering flood damage,charity as I allways understood it, should be for our country first and then if any thing is left okay.
    This country needs to cast the chains off, the EU is bleeding this country dry and then maybe, we will be able to dredge the rivers with out EU un-elected bureaucrats telling the Brits what we can do and not do.
    While Im having a rant another Barmy EU crack down on British anglers,and to make it worse the UK have rubber stamped the new rules,from july they will only be allowed to keep one if they are lucky another to catch two.
    Environment Minister George Eustice has said its a great result,wonder who for ?

  • Jacobi

    ” even if the shaky science behind it is correct”
    December’s rainfall was not a record. The gauges used were much higher up the mountains and therefore not comparable.

  • Michelle Diane

    Let’s face it people those with the will and resources to things about floods simply don’t give a sh*t as it never affects them personally. If Davyboy, May-do-nothing or Ozzibum were flooded out then you bet they’d move heaven and earth to make sure it never happened again. But as it’s only the plebs who were affected….oh well too bad so sad.

  • red2black

    Meanwhile, MPs award themselves a 10% pay rise and a £50k pension bonus.

  • RavenRandom

    I was prepared to dispute the increase in spending based on the rarity of the flooding event, but your arguments, especially the pitiful amount of money currently spent swayed me. Also, international development budget, I’m looking at you again.

    • Zhang Wei

      Surely Osborne can spend some of the billions of aid he has begged and secured from China on some flood defences??

  • Malcolm Stevas

    This is a perfect illustration of one of our politicians’ least savoury and most culpable defects: because their professional careers are ephemeral, and most of them are shallow careerists with an eye to the main chance, they concentrate on short-term modish issues at the expense of vital but un-sexy long term planning for energy, defence, immigration & border control – and flood defences.
    “This year, spending on river and sea defences….will come to £695 million…. this year the government and consumers between them will spend £4.3 billion subsidising green energy..”
    Says it all. In addition, we as a country have surrendered much of the responsibility for vital aspects of flood defence to the Kafkaesque workings of the EU, with its supreme ability to muck things up.
    Useful remarks on the Environment Agency and the EU re those flood defences can be read at
    today’s John Redwood’s Diary, with Redwood lambasting John Humphreys of the R4 Today programme for failing to ask fundamental questions of the EA’s Chief Executive.

  • MrBishi

    A spokesman for David Cameron said today, “governing the UK is about making difficult decisions, and it is our decision to concentrate on solving flooding in third world countries first”.

    • Zhang Wei

      Surely we can ask the Chinese to build us some flood defences considering all the aid they are giving us?

      • MrBishi

        It’s probably the only way we will get some decent defences.

    • Mary Ann

      You don’t want them coming here do you?

      • MrBishi

        I like non sequiturs, have you got any more?

  • Zhang Wei

    Surely we can buy some decent flood defences from all the aid we now receive from China?

  • Zhang Wei

    Surely Osborne can spend some of the billions of aid he has begged and secured from China on some flood defences?

    • Clive

      Thinking of the Three Gorges dam project which flooded 1.3 million people out of their homes – although the Chinese government of course asked them first (sure they did) – perhaps Chinese expertise lies in dealing with the aftermath rather than preventing the flood.

  • davidofkent

    With the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher, we have not had a Prime Minister since the end of WW2 who actually believes in anything. The PM of any Party has one aim and that is to get his Party re-elected. Thus, there are always competing claims for ‘other people’s money’. For thirty years approximately, successive governments have listened to the lefties claiming that other taxpayers must give more and more money to those who do not earn their upkeep. Thus when it comes to infrastructure, the piggy bank is empty. Those affected by floods know exactly how to grab a little more of other people’s money. By making claims that ‘it’s all the government cuts’, they browbeat politicians into promising more money for their areas (other people’s money). There are certainly areas such as ‘green subsidies’ which are becoming intolerable, but the big problem is that we continually grab as much as possible from Peter to provide handouts for Paul. Until this stops, the country will continue its long decline.

    • King Kibbutz

      I fear our much-vaunted ‘mustn’t grumble/spirit of the blitz/just get on with it’ demeanour is being counted on by our politicians. They know that we will let them get on as they see fit.

    • Mary Ann

      And when you are made redundant/pension fund goes bankrupt the boot will be on the other foot.

  • thomasaikenhead

    How many people in the flood-afflicted areas will contact their local councillors, MPs and Euro-MPs and ask them what role that they played in the cost-cutting that ruined their homes and their businesses?

    Were ‘lessons learned’ last time that many of these people were flooded out?

    How long will those in positions of responsibility continue to be permitted to be so negligent and incompetent?

    • King Kibbutz

      That’s just it though: it would seem, given the EU directive, that those in positions of responsibility are being very diligent and competent in their duties. Who are the British people to think their petty problems should stand in the way?

  • Clive

    How did The Spectator write a whole piece on flooding without mentioning the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) ?

    …Last century the obligation to dredge out the rivers was transferred to local river boards, consisting of farmers and landowners who knew the area and its characteristics, and who had statutory responsibilities to prevent or minimise flooding.

    But all this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when we adopted the European Water Framework Directive in 2000. No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’.

    ‘Heavily modified waters’, which include rivers dredged or embanked to prevent flooding, cannot, by definition, ever satisfy the terms of the directive.

    You might note that http://unitedkingdom.nlembassy.org/binaries/content/assets/postenweb/v/verenigd_koninkrijk_van_groot_brittannie_en_noord_ierland/nederlandse-ambassade-in-londen/import/key-topics/flood-risk-and-water-management-in-the-netherlands-a-2012-update1.pdf… 90% of the waterways in the
    Netherlands are in fact man made; these water bodies could legally all be classified
    as heavily modified water bodies….
    yet they somehow seem to be complying with the WFD.

    …And how is it that it has become the norm to attribute extreme weather to global warming when global warming is not currently happening and has not been for 18 years ?

    From 2013:
    …It will use four scenarios, based on different levels of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmopshere, to predict how temperatures will change by the end of the century.

    However, since 1998 there has been a reduction in warming that has seen global temperatures plateau.

    This has become known as the “pause”.

    While sceptics claim this hiatus in warming is perhaps a sign that the climate is not as sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions as previously thought, scientists believe it is due to a number of short-lived cooling effects….

    • sidor

      ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’.


      This is the central point of the green paranoia. Its essence is in assuming that there is something like “natural equilibrium” which we shouldn’t disturb by any means. It is difficult to find anything more idiotically irrational than this assumption. The Greens are becoming a real threat for the mankind, comparable with Wahhabi jihadists.

      • Mary Ann

        Interesting idea, Not sure why you dragged in the jihadists. Actually it’s the Greens that are the ones trying to protect the environment for all of us including the plants and animals we rely on.

        • sidor

          To demonstrate you how idiotic the idea to “protect the environment” is, consider the following example of radical destruction of the biological equilibrium in the natural environment. After WWII, there was a campaign of eradicating malaria in Sardinia using a massive distribution of DDT. In this way, the malaria-transmitting insects were wiped out. Would you prefer to keep the endemic malaria in that territory?

          • Zhang Wei

            What about the Wahhabis?

          • sidor

            I estimate that the impact of the Greens has so far been more damaging than that of the Wahhabis, if measured in $. The cost of the global warming hysteria is measured in tens of billions. The Greens succeeded in stopping all the Nuclear Power in Germany.

    • King Kibbutz

      Very informative, thank you for posting. I wonder if Cameron informed those flooded out over Christmas that this is essential to ensure ‘good ecological status’?

      We are truly in the hands of simpletons and maniacs.

    • Mary Ann

      They probably don’t need to comply because they are not natural waterways, they are drains.

      • sidor

        I was always curious about discriminating between natural and unnatural. Is milking a cow a natural process?

        • Zhang Wei

          And also ramming your arm up a cows vagina and pulling out a calf?

          • sidor

            Be careful. Zoophilia is a criminal offence in the US.

    • Thanks Tank

      The have been cutting funding for 30 years because the State was viewed as needed reduction as the free market does its thing.

      Things like this prove that the State has an important role to play.

    • eat your greens

      Yes yes, the penny drops, we are governed by leftards obsessed with the cult of Gaia and the Dutch are not.
      No country experiences flooding merely due to a bit of rain.

      • Migru Ghee

        Thank God the Prince of Wales holds no real power or exercises any form of undue influence in Britain today.

        • eat your greens

          I sense a reluctance to explore this claim further, it appears almost mean-spirited in the way your elucidations are avoided.

      • Gilbert White

        Dutch polders are magnets for wildlife, a bit like Charlie’s grannie’s bluebells?

      • AlanFman

        Yes, after all Holland never floods: http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2014/07/very_heavy_rain_in_much_of_hol/
        US is not suffering flooding either, except those people don’t stand around moaning that they have not got 30′ walls along their rivers.

  • edithgrove

    well because the Dutch are a sensible people, perhaps because they mostly live below sea-level, and we have become silly and show-offy.

    • Tom M

      I’ll go with that edith. After all why would people being paid £100,000 a year be bothered with dredging rivers and messy commonplace things like that when they could be off participating in saving the world?
      If I lived anywhere that was flooded at the moment I would seethe if I saw yet another pristine yellow jacket and straight-from-the-shop white hat from the Environment Agency anywhere near me.

  • Hugo van Valkenburg

    Be practical: So much damage, it’s cheaper to hire the Dutch!

  • davidofkent

    I agree that we should go Dutch. The cost of repairing flood-hit roads and bridges should come from the local council tax first. Then other taxpayers around the country should contribute to a degree where the country as a whole benefits. In this way, the people who wish to live in lovely locations near rivers and rolling hills can pay for the privilege, rather than others who are stuck in less desirable places.

  • Hamburger

    An awful lot of the Netherlands is below sea level. It is therefore not at all surprising that they spend more on their sea defences.

  • Jacobi

    The science of flood control is well understood, and not just in the Netherlands.

    But it is not applied in the UK. Piecemeal local defences, which of course create problems elsewhere, and crossed fingers, are the preferred solutions while all
    along, the actual policy is dictated by commercial building interests using carefully disguised local bribery.

    It is noticeable that key to the Dutch defence are “temporary reservoirs” in
    agricultural land, what we used to call flood plains. But flood plains are no longer part of our current thinking. They are far too valuable for such usage in the UK nowadays.

    And so the problems will go on whether we get unusual rain or not.

  • whorya

    Take all the money from the overseas aid. “we must look after our own disasters sometimes”. India will just have to postpone its High speed train for awhile, or cut back on their nuclear weapons program, or slow down the spaceship they sent to Mars to conserve fuel. LOOK AFTER OUR OWN FOR ONCE. DAVID.

  • Steve Dalton

    A Brilliant report. If only people in the UK would wake up and realise the shear incompetence of the environment agency and the damage it has done through inaction and not getting its priorities right for two decades now. The ea should have ben scrapped by the government as promised years ago when they said that they would burn the quangos and the ea is the worst of them. The previous NRA was much more proactive allowing landowners to dredge and maintain river banks. The ea urgently need to be replaced with a much smaller and more efficient organisation that can then allow a dutch approach to mitigate and protect people and assets. Few realise how big and arrogant the ea have become following EU directives for fish to the letter that don’t work. I recommend people reading the inside the ea to see how bad it is. Few even realise that it is the ea and sepa that killed off micro hydro power in the uk through following the stupid eu wfd to the letter, I should know as I tried to spearhead a micro hydro revolution in the uk and was rebuffed by the ea and even the bha which is supposed to promote hydro. The truth and the mad reasonings behind it is much worse than people think.