The politics of ‘flood defence’ – land management and social justice

“David Cameron has promised to invest £400 million a year on shoring up flood defences over the next six years; but official data shows spending was cut sharply at the start of the last parliament, from £360m in 2010-11, to less than £270m in 2012-13” (The Guardian 31.12.2015: 1). 

I do not believe that David Cameron’s Government will deliver on this statement but, be that as it may, there is still something pathetic about his pottering around flood-ravaged England dispensing platitudes about funding ‘flood defences’. It is pathetic because the Government is clinging to thinking about water management that it knows is practically ineffective, socially unworkable and,  additionally, defies expert opinion.

After the flooding of the Somerset Levels the Government, having consistently cut back funding to the Environment Agency tried, in desperation, to blame it for the consequences of the Government’s own policies. It was forced to back down and the ensuing climb-down involved consultation with a range of top water management experts. They told the Government that it needed to avoid the temptation to revert to dredging and start putting in place inclusive, catchment-wide thinking about the causes and prevention of flooding. (I’ve written about this before – see ‘Won’t Wash’ or: ‘high and dry thinking in a wide, wet, world’ The Government then proceeded to totally ignore this advice because it was going to be unpopular with regional Tory supporters.

Inclusive, catchment-wide thinking in relation to flooding is primarily about prevention rather than defence and, as such, requires fundamental changes in attitudes to rural governance. On Exmoor, for example, this thinking has meant reversing long-established assumptions – not least that water needs to be drained off the high moor as fast as possible (largely with a view to improving the land for grazing). The new policy reverses this, trying to ensure that the water stays on the moor for as long as possible and drains off it as slowly as possible, thus minimising both the risk of flooding downstream in the short term and substantially reducing the amount of soil washed down to silt up rivers in the middle to long term. This change in thinking is really only possible because since 1954 Exmoor has been a National Park, with its governance initially coordinated by local government and, since 1997, by a free standing Exmoor National Park Authority. What this means in practice is that this area of land is managed through a council made up of elected individuals who, in accordance with democratic convention, must act in the public interest and demonstrate that they will do so by publically declaring their personal and pecuniary interests. In short on Exmoor there is the possibility of genuine democratic debate as to the basis for its governance, thus distinguishing it sharply from the bulk of uplands in the UK. These largely remain in private ownership and are managed on the basis of the personal interests of individuals like the “exuberant hedgefund billionaire Crispin Odey”, singled out as a typical grouse moor owner by Telegraph reporter Clive Aslet 

This is where the issue of flooding and social justice start to converge. In 2014 the same Government that chose to ignore the call for inclusive, catchment-wide thinking in relation to the Somerset Levels almost doubled the subsidy to landowners who own grouse moors (from £30 to £56 per hectare). Unfortunately what is good in terms of raising grouse for shooting is bad for flood prevention. By increasing the grouse moor subsidy the Government has effectively subsidised miss-management of hundreds of thousands of hectares, both in terms of flood prevention and of opportunities to link good environmental governance and increased rural employment more generally. In short, the wealthy and privileged few are being rewarded for perpetuating a situation that brings misery to tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. (For a direct link between grouse moor management and flooding see George Monbiot’s recent blog entry). Misery that in this last round of flooding alone is estimated to be going to cost the country in excess of five billion pounds. My point is simple. David Cameron’s promised £2,400 million is not just about “shoring up” flood defences, its also about shoring up an exclusive and deeply anachronistic version of rural life and economy – one that the right to continue fox hunting and grouse shooting have come to symbolise in the minds of those who claim to defend ‘our’ rural way of life.

It will be blindingly obvious to anyone with any political sense that a Tory Government will not risk upsetting the wealthy landowning classes – whether in the name of flood prevention or any other eco-social concern. If they were to do so, we can be sure that organisations like the Countryside Alliance and Country Land and Business Association would do everything they can to defend the rural mythology that supports the status quo. (An example of such a defence is provided by Charles Clove in an article in praise of the ownership of rural land ownership (which, he suggests, was never “likely to attract capitalists who were not born into it as a way of life – unless for social reasons, or for sport” – a sport, however, where rich individuals from around the world pay something in the region of £140 for the privilege of killing two birds).

This leaves us with the practical question of what is to be done.

In my view there is little or no point in adopting a rigidly adversarial approach towards the rural establishment, not least because it is politically and economically very powerful (for good or ill), and often holds attitudes that are likely to harden further if blindly opposed. Nor is there any ‘magic bullet’ that can solve the complex of issues involved. The real solution to the worsening flooding in the UK lies in a whole cluster of changes, some of which have no obvious connection to water management.

These include the move to proportional representation that is necessary to restore something approaching a genuine democratic system of government to the UK, and without which serious land management reform will never take place. But it also requires serious work at many levels on ending the ignorance and calculated prejudice that is used to perpetuate the rural/urban divide – a divide that plays straight into the hands of those whose only real concern is the perpetuation of a status quo that, increasingly, has become both socially and environmentally toxic. This requires us to build dialogue and a degree of trust that, inevitably, with mean building new alliances and, inevitably, some compromise of long-cherished views on both sides of that divide. There are examples that point to new possibilities in this respect, for example The BurrenLIFE project – Farming for Conservation in the Burren in the west of Ireland. The aims of this project include: 

  • Implementing best-known management practices on 2,000ha of the Burren, including new feeding systems, redeployment of existing livestock and targeted scrub removal.
    Increasing understanding of the relationship between land management practices and the natural heritage of the Burren;
  • Developing new support mechanisms for the sustainable management of the Burren habitats;
  • Enhancing awareness and skills relating to the heritage of the Burren and its management through a range of practical initiatives aimed at empowering local communities;
  • Disseminating information relating to the agricultural management of areas of high nature and cultural conservation value through literature and the media.

 Indicatively, it may be that the second and last of these aims are the most pressing. Developing ‘new support mechanisms for … sustainable management’ in any rural area has to involve looking long and hard at its eco-economic viability, which in turn will often require developing forms of employment that, in order to genuinely ’empower local communities’, will challenge a rural status quo that still takes its right to pursue activities like grouse shooting as a given. That in turn raises important governance, educational and cultural issues, including that of raising external understanding and support during what will inevitably be periods of difficult transition in such communities. It is here that the dissemination of information (and not only that relating to the environmental and agricultural management of an area) informed by inclusive catchment thinking – particularly through literature, the arts and the media – comes into play.