Complaining about the weather is a traditional national pastime in Britain. Summer is now synonymous with damp disappointment: rainy bank holidays, washed out Wimbledon and mudbath music festivals. And of course we grimly joke about the inevitability of it all, now that soggy summers are commonplace. This year’s great British summer has seen more record-breakingly bad weather: June 2016 gained the dubious honour of being the wettest June ever, well before it was even over. Not long before, December 2015 was the warmest December ever. And it was the wettest month ever recorded, with double the average rainfall, leading to devastating floods across northern England. Flooding in Britain is the new normal.
Extreme weather is no longer extreme
Flooding in Britain doesn’t happen just because of a spell of heavy rain, of course, Nor is it inevitable, much as it might feel that way. And we can’t control the weather, although it’s a near certainty that human activity and man-made global warming have helped create the climate conditions that make alarming weather so much more common now. We can however increase or decrease the likelihood of flooding, and we can control what happens to rainwater. Now that extreme weather is no longer extreme, and catastrophic flooding is becoming commonplace, experience should have taught us how to prevent the worst, and minimise the damage. But we don’t seem to be learning anything. In fact we seem to be going backwards.
Here’s a case in point. Residents of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire have campaigned for several years to ban burning moorland heather and draining the moors on the Walshaw Moor grouse shooting estate, a SSSI, upstream from the town. (Burning encourages new roots, which grouse feed on, and more grouse to shoot means more profit for the estate owner.) Backed by scientific evidence, they argued that repeated burning and draining has made the peat bogs less able to hold water, increasing the risk of the town being flooded.
Sure enough, torrential rain last December flooded Hebden Bridge. If the upstream peat bogs had been able to act as a 6,500 acre sponge, would this have still happened? Who knows. But a single landowner and their profit from bloodsports seems to have been a higher priority than the safety and best interests of the town.
The government seems to be going backwards at a national level too, exemplified in
their failing to implement the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010, which mandates the use of SuDS. More recently, an amendment that the House of Lords proposed, to encourage SuDS and compel developers to reduce flood risk to new housing, sank in the Commons. We treat each new extreme weather event as a one-off; they aren’t. We know how to increase resilience and minimise the impact of prolonged heavy rain, but we fail to act. We talk about climate change as though it’s something that will happen in the future; it’s happening now, as flooding in Britain shows.
The landscape sector needs to lead on demanding planning, management and design to prevent flooding. Neither time nor the weather are on our side.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.