What Our Country Needs Is ‘Slow Water’ – And Less Concrete

How to reduce flooding

The Daily Telegraph (London)
November 24, 2009 Tuesday

By Clive Aslet

ENGLAND is a green and pleasant land that is generally well provided with water. But as the catastrophe in Cumbria amply demonstrates, managing that provision is no easy task.

Strangely, the problem only a few years ago seemed to be drought. A small consolation may be that, of the two conditions, too much water is preferable to too little, however much individual householders may be suffering.

Remember: whatever it may feel like in Cumbria, this has not, on average, been a year of very exceptional rainfall. In the West, a very wet summer was followed by a drier than usual autumn. In Norfolk and Kent it seems hardly to have rained at all (except when gales closed the port of Dover).

The flash floods that Britain has experienced in recent years - at Boscastle, Cornwall (2004); Helmsley, Yorkshire (2005); Elford, Staffordshire (2007); Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire (2008) - suggest that it is impossible to predict where flooding in Britain will strike next.

One thing, though, is certain: successive governments since the 1980s have been guilty of supreme folly in allowing new dwellings to be built on flood plains.

Easing planning restrictions on flood plains released a supply of land in a way that seemed preferable to incurring the wrath of conservationists by building new towns. Inevitably, these recently built homes have often been the first ones to be flooded.

Throughout history, builders prior to the Thatcher government did their best to site development away from low-lying areas that were close to rivers. Alas, they did not always succeed.

At Lower Cockermouth, the Georgians spilt downhill from the medieval town towards the confluence of two rivers. Much of London is built over low-lying marsh.
If the government can provide insurance for the banks, surely it should devise a scheme to enable the property market to function in areas at risk from flooding.

With water mostly available in manageable amounts, Britain has not thought much about it since the Victorians. Cumbria should jolt us out of our complacency.

For half a century, we have been putting more and more of Britain under concrete, reducing the amount of land available to soak up rain.

"Improved'' drainage has meant channelling ever greater volumes of water into pipes and sewers - rather than being allowed to seep down into aquifers. This water shoots straight into rivers, hopefully to be carried out to sea. Farmers have steadily upgraded the drainage of their fields, to similar effect.

Just as the Slow Food movement calls for food to be grown at a natural pace, what we now need is Slow Water, reducing the speed at which it is rushed off the land by hard engineering. Local authorities must enlist the help of farmers and landowners, with appropriate payments.

Flooding in some places does not minimise the risk of water shortages in others. A public inquiry has just opened in Kent into South East Water's plans for a pounds 100 million reservoir at Broad Oak near Canterbury - one of seven such reservoirs planned for the South East.

The project is bitterly opposed by conservationists, including the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Slow Water is needed as much to replenish aquifers as to reduce flooding.

Traditionally, flooding has been a fact of life in the countryside. Think of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, or Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water. In his diary, the Victorian curate Francis Kilvert recorded how the swollen river Wye once carried away a coach and horses. Yet fields and even villages have an extraordinary capacity to recover, as anyone who has visited the sites of previous flash floods will attest.

The collapse of the bridge at Cockermouth is rare: there are 4,000 medieval bridges in the country, many of which have known their share of floods.

For the time being, parts of Cumbria seem irretrievably wrecked. But if past experience is a guide, there will be little to see by next spring.


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