As an island nation, we will in the end have to accept that the sea will continue to reshape our landscape

It is unrealistic to fortify the whole of the South-west and flood defences obstruct open views

Share

Those flooded out of their villages on the Somerset Levels since Christmas might have looked a little enviously at the frantic goings on in Dawlish yesterday. Having a section of a major railway line collapse into the sea, cutting off rail access to Devon and Cornwell, drew the sort of immediate, full-court, emergency response it had taken the good folk of Somerset almost six weeks to attract.

In the end, though, they had eventually received the top-level attention they felt to be their due. First, there was the rather sheepish, or so it seemed, Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who had no convincing explanation as to why he had not made the journey all the way from his Oswestry constituency before.

Then up turned Lord Smith, the head of the Environment Agency (not to be confused with Patterson’s Environment Department), whose absence, like his precise responsibilities, remained largely unexplained. And last – but, of course, not least – the national reference point on all matters countryside, the Prince of Wales. 

Prince Charles, it should be noted, was the only one of the three to do flood PR properly: in a boat, in his wellies and his waterproofs, and gushing huge amounts of sympathy. But then his staff had had ample time to prepare. Why do our politicians do this so badly? I know why they struggle with heat and drought – it is because we regard these as exceptional, and even a bit of a treat until they get out of hand. But water? Even a lot of it? In the wrong places?

Nor is it as though there are insufficient lessons from elsewhere. Angela Merkel’s predecessor at the helm of Germany’s centre-right, Edmund Stoiber, can blame floods in his home state of Bavaria for the loss of the 2002 election. The rain was still falling when the then Chancellor and electoral underdog, Gerhard Schroeder, planted his wellies demonstratively on his rival’s sodden streets, a good two weeks before Stoiber, returned from holiday and pulled on his designer rain gear in a lamentable effort to follow suit.

George W Bush, nice and dry in the presidential helicopter, you may recall, chose to view the 2005 Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans only from the air first time around, as though he was a tourist, rather than the individual ultimately responsible for the national response. David Cameron managed a sympathetic article in the Western Daily Press, and yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions mentioned some cash, while citing “Cobra meetings on an almost daily basis” as proof that the Government had not fallen down on the job. As so often, there was a hint that officialdom tends to regard meetings and actions as the same thing.

It will be no consolation to those wading through new lakes in the West country, or to those who lost power for days over Christmas, to know that the national picture has been less dire than might have been feared, given the force of wind and the volume of water. In the east, the defences built up after the disaster of 1953, held up well, and the Thames Barrier has done its job for London.

But it is unrealistic to fortify the whole of the South-west, and while flood defences may save the land, they obstruct the open views that drew many people to live there. Which prompts two conclusions. First, anyone – whether a construction company or an individual – who builds on land that is prone to flooding, and that includes flood plains, whose very purpose is to flood, must accept the consequences.

The extent to which building has been permitted on flood plains over the past 30 years, without the builders or councils being required to provide (expensive) flood protection has sown the watery harvest we are now reaping. The risk was transferred to the insurance companies which, when the pay-outs become too great, appealed to the Government for help that comes, in the end, from our taxes. New building on floodplains (or glorious, but fragile areas, such as the Somerset Levels) should be made to cost what that risk really costs. At present, it is heavily, but covertly, subsidised.   

The second conclusion which follows from this, is that some parts of the coast or near-coast, may have to be given up to the sea. Islands are vulnerable; the water has always encroached on the landscape. There really is enough land to build on elsewhere.

When I lived in Washington DC, one of my favourite excursions was to Chesapeake Bay and we flirted with buying a little clapboard house on Cobb Island, a one-time fishing community of now mostly second homes, connected to the mainland by a causeway. But the project was not quite as simple as it seemed.

When we looked at one, rather run-down, house, the agent unfolded a big map. We had to understand, he said, that Cobb Island was particularly fragile. The plot, as marked, was accurate today, but the likelihood was that it would shrink, and he pointed to where the coastline had been only a few years before. It would have been a glorious retreat, but it came with a salutary sense of impermanence, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Research Executive - Quantitative/Qualitative

£27000 - £31000 Per Annum Excellent Benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

ETL Developer / Consultant

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Primary supply teachers required in Stowmarket

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron and Ed Miliband attend the Queen's Speech on 4 June 2014  

Scottish referendum: It's hard for us Labour supporters to admit, but Cameron did good here

Rob Marchant
NO ballots are stacked on a table during the Scottish independence referendum count at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh  

Scottish referendum: Some divorces are meant to happen – this one wasn’t

Dotti Irving
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week