Flooding and our craze for paving, at home with the Murdochs and politics and pancakes

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The Independent Online

If your home is flooded, the past few weeks have been nothing but misery. Stinking sewage has pumped its way into sitting rooms. Floodwater has lapped around your sofa and, even when the waters subside, the cost of repair and returning your property into a home again is going to be high. I have nothing but sympathy for the victims of the floods. But, while we bandy around accusations about who is to blame, whether climate change is happening and whether politicians have done enough to help those affected, we need to look at how other countries cope and then take a long, hard look at ourselves.

In the Netherlands, the city of Rotterdam, 90 per cent below sea level, is turning itself into an urban "sponge", with sunken plazas that turn into city water features during flooding, roof gardens that soak up a lot of rain, rather than hard slate which forces the water to run off and, crucially, gardens and drives that are not concreted over but are grass, gravel and other porous materials. In one year in Germany, gardens and new drives, the equivalent of 2,000 hectares, were made of permeable material that allows rain to soak in, rather than run off into drains – a significant cause of urban flooding. In the same year in the UK, the equivalent of just 370 hectares of new drives were created using permeable material. Yes, our land mass is smaller than Germany's, but we are two-thirds the size, meaning that, if these figures were in proportion, we would be building flood-preventing, porous new drives the size of 1,371 hectares – nearly four times as much as we are.

Instead, we have gone paving crazy. As we report today, the proportion of gardens that have been paved over in urban areas increased from just over a quarter, or 28 per cent, in 2001, to nearly a half, or 48 per cent, in 2011, according to a report by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Government's Committee on Climate Change. A similar study for the RAC found that 30 per cent of houses with front gardens had these plots paved over in 2011 – a rise from 16 per cent in 1991. That is around seven million homes whose front gardens have turned to stone – the equivalent of 100 Hyde Parks. In London, gardens the equivalent of two and a half Hyde Parks a year have been lost to hard landscaping, according to a study by the London Wildlife Trust. Hard surfacing increased by more than 25 per cent over a period of 100 months, the 2010 study found.

The figures, while striking, should come as no surprise to anyone who walks down any street in Britain today. And the link to the current flooding crisis is inescapable. Suburbia is drowning because we are paving over our drives and front gardens as concrete altars to the car. Since 2009, householders have needed planning permission from their local authority to build impermeable drives or landscaping in their front gardens. But this has not stopped millions from doing it, suggesting that councils are all too happy to grant permission. In modern Britain, the car comes first. And no such planning permission is needed for back gardens. Last year, I watched in horror as my neighbour's lawn, lush, green and surrounded by flower beds, was replaced with hard stone slabs, from fence to fence, save for one miserable, tiny, semi-circular bed where a shrub sits, dying, its roots crushed by flagstones.

It is not only "garden grabbing" that has caused the floods, but it is a major factor. Report after report, by the Committee on Climate Change and others, points to "urban creep" – not urban areas becoming larger, but the building-over of existing gardens – as a major cause of flooding caused by excessive rainfall. When rainwater cannot soak into the ground below, it runs off into drains which cannot cope with the load, and rivers overflow more quickly. Hydrologists also blame the relatively new craze of building into basements, forcing the water table to rise elsewhere. There is nothing we can do to magic the heavy rain away somehow. But we can change the way we live, and build. This means radical change must happen on our own doorsteps – literally. If we must carry on relying on our cars, which many of us do, particularly in areas of poor public transport, we must switch to drives made out of gravel or porous asphalt. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, permeable materials are cheaper anyway. We must look sustainable drainage systems (Suds) which are used across Europe, including in Rotterdam – with its "rain gardens", "urban ponds", roof gardens and permeable paving. It has got to the stage where we have no choice.

Look, Rupert...

When rumours of an affair between Tony Blair and Wendi Deng first surfaced last year, they were categorically denied by the former PM's office. What has made this story continue has been Rupert Murdoch's belief that the allegations are true and the revelation of cringing notes that Deng wrote about Blair's "good body and really, really good legs" and how much she missed him. Now friends of Blair are trying to get their version of events out. According to friends quoted in The Guardian, while no affair happened, Blair did try to tell Murdoch that he had spent time with Deng, when the newspaper proprietor wasn't there – including at the Murdochs' Californian ranch in October 2012 and April 2013. Blair "foolishly accepted" invitations from Deng when Murdoch was absent, say the ex–PM's friends. He was about to tell Murdoch about the meetings, but the 82-year-old's young daughters, Grace and Chloe, burst in the room. I put this account to Blair's people yesterday, but they didn't come back to me.

Those flipping MPs

It is that time of year when I realise with dread that I've agreed to run the Parliamentary Pancake Race for the charity Rehab. I ran for the media team for the first time last year, on a freezing day in early February. This year, thankfully, Shrove Tuesday is later, when it should be warmer. I understand that Lord Rennard, previously a key fixture in the Lords' team, will not be taking part this year – last year's race was just days before allegations broke about his behaviour towards Lib Dem women. Also absent this year, I hope, will be the frankly astonishing tactics by the MPs, aiming for a hat-trick of victories this year, who, if the pancake race were an Olympic sport, would be disqualified for not actually doing any flipping. Not that I'm competitive, but, if you're near Tower Gardens outside the Houses of Parliament on 4 March, please come and watch me and my fellow journalists try to stop the MPs from winning.