Before the flood

Complaining about the weather is a traditional national pastime. Summer in Britain 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 wet summers are the new normal. This year’s great British summer has seen more record-breakingly bad weather: June 2016 gained the dubious honour of being the wettest June on record, well before it was even over. Not long before, December 2015 became the wettest month ever recorded (and the warmest December ever) seeing double the average rainfall, and leading to devastating floods across northern England.

Flooding doesn’t happen just because of a spell of heavy rain, of course, nor is it inevitable – much as it currently feels 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 for a ban on the burning of moorland heather and draining of 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. And sure enough, after torrential rain last December, Hebden Bridge was indeed flooded. If the upstream peat bogs had not been damaged and were 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 given a higher priority than the safety and best interests of the town.

The government seems to be going backwards at a national level too, as shown in
the failure to implement the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010, which mandates the use of SuDS. More recently, an amendment proposed by the House of Lords that would have encouraged SuDS and compelled developers to reduce flood risk to new housing was rejected 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. 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.

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