I am no apologist for the Environment Agency, but I believe they are right when they say that the lack of dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels has contributed relatively little to the current flooding problem. As they have pointed out, much of the Levels are at or below sea level, and this and the high tide range on the Severn estuary (the second highest in the world) contribute greatly to the problem.
But probably the most relevant feature of the area has so far has remained unmentioned – that the area of surrounding land draining into the Levels is four times that of the Levels themselves. This means that above-average rainfall in the surrounding areas has a disproportionate effect on flood risk on the Levels, compared to the East Anglian fens, for example, where the ratio is only two to one.
What happens in the surrounding land has as much if not more effect on flooding than activities on the Levels themselves. As elsewhere, the management of the agricultural land in these areas has no doubt intensified in recent years, resulting in reduced water-holding capacity due to increased soil compaction, intensification of grassland management (old pastures can hold up to five times the amount of water as intensively managed ones), and ploughing up of grassland.
Reinstating dredging in rivers such as the Parrett and Tone will no doubt help. But any plan to alleviate flooding must involve measures to increase the water-holding capacity of surrounding areas, including afforestation and measures to reduce soil compaction and surface run-off.
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, is derided both in your Monday editorial and in a feature article by the Environment Editor for directing Defra’s departmental budget for flood control away from adaptation to climate change and towards managing flood risk.
Readers should be aware that this decision is entirely in accord with climate-change orthodoxy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports, as well as its recent SREX report, which focused specifically on extreme events, grant a low level of confidence to there being an impact on flood magnitude and frequency from global warming. This accords with numerous data-based studies both in the UK and globally that fail to find a signal of change.
We should welcome that taxpayers’ money is directed to where there is evidence of threat.
East Hagbourne, Oxfordshire
Tom Bawden, your Environment Editor, should not be surprised that the Somerset villages of Muchelney and Thorney have become islands (“Minister caught in storm of anger from ‘abandoned’ flood victims”, 28 January). That is what the names mean – “Big Island” and “Thorn Island” – and that is what they were when the Anglo-Saxons named them.
Generate your own energy
What happens next in Britain’s energy story will set the tone for many other areas of our economy, where broken markets and monopolies are making it increasingly difficult for ordinary people to live well in Britain (“Miliband names Roosevelt as his unlikely political hero”, 20 January). Better regulation is part of the solution. But a true market will only be achieved if the next government creates an environment that supports grassroots energy initiatives.
There is a growing community energy industry in the UK, where neighbours are collaborating, creating jobs and growing their social capital as well as economic power. Recent research shows community energy could grow to 89 times its current size if existing barriers were lowered. There is much to learn from the way other countries are developing their own community energy and renewables at a fast pace, while the UK suffers.
The more the argument becomes polarised between government power and big business, the more ordinary people switch off and become further alienated from politics and the workings of the broader economy. There are genuine alternatives, and the party that understands and embraces them has nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.
Theresa Burton, Buzzbnk
Andrew Croft, CAN
Social Economy Alliance
Social Enterprise UK
The future of interest rates
It appears that Mark Carney has been taking advantage of the clear mountain air of Davos to do some forward thinking on his “big idea” of forward guidance (“Carney pours cold water on imminent rise in interest rates”, 25 January).
His first attempt at forward guidance – an announced decision not to consider a change in interest rates until unemployment fell below 7 per cent – passed its sell-buy date rather quicker than he anticipated.
One idea for forward guidance II is to get each member of the MPC to state where they think interest rates will be in two to three years’ time – fairly harmless, fairly costless and probably not much use.
The second is a “state-contingent” rule, in which reconsideration of interest rate decisions will depend on a set of explicit economic indicators – déjà vu and therefore lacking credibility?
The third is “time-contingent” guidance where you state a specific period over which interest rates are expected to remain constant (at ½ per cent) – isn’t this what we currently have?
Surely the latter can continue to be communicated effectively – even Jeremy Paxman was charmed into acquiescence by Carney’s storyline in Davos.
Professor of Finance, Cass Business School, London EC1
Not easy to be mediocre
For too long journalists have allowed mediocrity and sloppy generalisations to form their view of teachers. One sentence in your editorial of 24 January led me to write the above: “For too long, the teaching profession has allowed mediocrity, if not actual incompetence, to flourish unchecked”.
Is this seriously your view? Have you been in a school lately? Have you never heard of Ofsted; compulsory Continued Professional Development; peer review; assessment for Qualified Teacher Status; Maths, English and IT tests for teachers; rigorous vetting and assessment before promotion; Teach First; School Improvement assessments?
Oh, and then there’s comparative data of pupil achievement; learning targets; value added targets; parental consultation (with Parent Portals they can keep a constant, ongoing check on their child’s progress, not just a once-a-year 10-minute meeting); monitoring by heads and governors; and then there’s the most demanding assessment of all, the pupils.
If any “mediocre” and “incompetent” teacher can remain in the profession with all this it would be very surprising. Even Michael Gove himself gave “credit to the professionalism and hard work of teachers”.
Governor, Deputy Head (retired), Chew Magna, Somerset
France’s ‘comic’ anti-Semite
Many thanks for publishing, a first-rate article on Dieudonné (28 January). John Lichfield has got it spot on. I am most impressed that someone in the British press has at last taken the time and trouble to investigate this anti-Semite properly.
Dieudonné’s message has now spread to the mainstream, as demonstrated at Sunday’s protest against “the system” of almost 20,000 here in Paris. In a YouTube clip, Jews are being told they are not wanted in France, a thing not heard of since 1930s Germany. It is believed that the largest group of Jews residing in Europe live in France.
These shoes are bad for your health
I was pleased to read Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s column on 27 January. When I was at school I remember being told that high heels cause back pain and bunions, not to mention falling over more easily.
I have been amazed that even hospital managers walk in these obviously unhealthy shoes.
Slow ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire
Steve Connor (“Return of the Black Death”, 28 January) credits the Justinian Plague of the 6th century AD with hastening “the final demise of the Roman Empire”
In fact the western empire had already fallen in the preceding century, and the eastern empire, Justinian’s realm, had another nine hundred years to go.