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Environment (Deep End)

On Monday’s Deep End, I suggested that the floods will soon drop down the political agenda – though, of course, the people who have been directly affected will be counting the cost for months and years to come. Less than a week since the last big storm, the issue has already disappeared from the front pages – and, if the new pattern of merely miserable weather holds, we can expect the story to disappear from the inside pages too.

Nevertheless, one hopes that somebody somewhere in government is fulfilling that often-made promise to ‘learn the lessons.’ If somebody is, then they could do worse than listen to the Conservative MP and former minister Richard Benyon.

His article for the Guardian embodies the difference between populism and true conservatism – starting with the topic of dredging:

“A timely report by the respected Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), called ‘Flooding and Dredging – a Reality Check,’ suggests that we should be wary of seeing dredging as a solution to extreme flooding, even in a reclaimed and low-lying landscape like the Somerset Levels… 

“The report suggests dredging may have reduced the duration of flooding but at the expense of an increase in tidal incursions. It is clear that the portrayal of dredging as a panacea risks giving false hope to a beleaguered community.

“In fact, studies show that in some places dredging can even make downstream flooding worse and heighten flood peaks – the very last thing people at the bottom of the Thames or Severn catchments need at the moment.”

As HL Mencken once said, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” In times of crisis, people yearn for clear and simple solutions – and there’s a certain kind of shallow, cynical politician (i.e. the kind now running the show) all too willing to indulge the public mood.

Then there’s the question of money. In the midst of a disaster, anything other than the signing of blank cheques is condemned as a hard-hearted, penny-pinching outrage. Yet as Richard Benyon reminds us, resources are limited and gesture politics is a poor basis on which to allocate them:

“We should never view all Britain’s flooding problems through the prism of one calamity. I’m told that if we were to roll out river dredging nationally on a similar scale to what will be spent on the Levels the bill would amount to about a quarter of the UK’s GDP.

“…when it comes to public anger we should remember that in the last four years we have seen two years of drought and two of floods. If 2012 had been as dry as the previous two years we would have faced some very serious anger in 2013 – the sixth largest economy in the world would have had standpipes in the streets and businesses would have closed for lack of the most basic raw material.”

Imagine, if at the height of the drought, ministers had given into panicky demands for a crash programme of reservoir construction. We’d still have been digging holes in the very parts of the country most affected by the current excess of water.

Building up our resilience will require investment.  But we don’t need ‘clear and simple’ solutions, rather the right ones – which might not be at all clear to the layman and which will certainly be complex:

“The solution lies in the hills and fields around rivers, where water can be held up before causing problems downstream. It is also about having a sensible long-term catchment management plan that exists alongside flood protection planning. I would add one more dimension: not having this approach torn up or rewritten to satisfy a short-term news agenda.”

Sometimes we really do need to trust the experts. You can think what you like about the political appointees who drift in and out of quango chairmanships, but the scientists and practitioners who devote their working lives to the study and protection of our landscapes deserve some respect. More respect, anyway, than the “armchair hydrologists” who claim to have all the answers after half-an-hour on the internet.

That doesn’t mean that expert bodies shouldn’t be subject to democratic oversight, but even this requires expertise: politicians and journalists who develop in-depth knowledge of a policy area –whether or not the cameras are pointing in their direction.

53 comments for: Heresy of the week: Sometimes we really do need to trust the experts

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