By Paul Goodman
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Caroline Spelman failed to sell off or lease large parts of England's forests – as her acceptance yesterday of the Independent Panel on Forestry's report into their future reminded us.
But in another sense she has been a triumphant success – at least, if the example set by one of her predecessors and imitated by her is anything to go by.
Denis Howell was an obscure former Birmingham councillor and second-rank Labour MP when he was made Minister for Rain during the year that saw the the hottest summer average temperature in Britain since records began.
An obituary records: "His appointment coincided with the advent of heavy rainfall so that within 10 days of Harold Wilson giving him the job, he became known as Minister for Floods". Ms Spelman has been following in his footsteps. She called a "Drought Summit" at DEFRA in February. After that, things began to happen so thick and fast that it is hard to keep up:
- February 20: Ms Spelman warns that: "We are facing a severe water shortage…more areas are likely to be affected as we continue to experience a prolonged period of very low rainfall." She confirms a drought order for the south-east, warned of impending hosepipe bans, and returns to her office to implement Action This Day.
- February 20-29: Rain begins immediately. The Met Office describes "frontal systems which mainly brought rain or showers to northern and, to some extent, western areas. The 20th, in particular, was wet across the north-west with over 40 mm in the north Pennines and 55 mm at Alston (Cumbria)." However, the challenge remains, especially in the south-east: "Only 13 Februaries have been drier in the past century".
- March 3-7 and March 17-18: Mixed success for the Environment Secretary. The Met Office records that "rain and brisk winds linger in the south-east until the 6th," and "rain spread from the west in the early hours of 17th, eventually clearing the far southeast in late evening". However, "March 2012 was the warmest over the UK as a whole since 1997, and the sunniest since 1929."
- "Figures for 1 - 25 April show the month so far has seen well above average rainfall across the UK, with 97 mm of rain recorded," declares the Met Office, adding that "in the south, this month is one of only three in the last two years which has seen significantly above average rainfall." The BBC adds to the provisional figures by declaring that "2012 had [the] wettest April for 100 years". Triumph for Ms Spelman.
- May 1-15: "Rainfall was running at 79% of the average too, well ahead for just halfway through the month…This tells the story of a wet, gloomy and cold 15 days." Then comes disaster, according to the Met Office: "a run of dry and fine weather, with some remarkably high temperatures". But the previous month's rainfall hands the Environment Secretary a victory. On May 19, she announces that 19 areas are to be moved out of drought.
- June 1-15: Ms Spelman advances into the south-east as three hospipe bans are lifted. It's early days, but the Met Office reports that "a succession of frontal low-pressure systems have stalled over or close to the south of the country, bringing large amounts of rainfall in some areas, particularly in Wales and southern England…based on provisional mid-month stats, the beginning of June has been significantly wetter than average".
- June 15 – 30: The Met Office reports that "provisional Met Office figures for June show double the average amount of rain has fallen, making it the wettest June since records began in 1910". Ms Spelman also succeeds in banishing sunshine. "It is also the second dullest June on record with just 119.2 hours of sunshine, narrowly missing out on the record of 115.4 hours set in 1987."
These dry summaries don't altogether capture the human drama of the situation. I have attempted to provide some flavour of it recently on ConservativeHome's morning newslinks with headlines that none the less meet Lord Justice's Leveson's requirement of rigorously separating news from comment. As Lord Ashcroft rightly declares on this site today, "ConservativeHome is of course strictly neutral and impartial, as I am sure all its readers would attest".
So for example I am able today in the newslinks below to report the Daily Mail's "Get set for a month's rain in next two days" under the headline "Rain Goddess Spelman will let a month's worth of rain fall today and tomorrow after she conjures up wettest June on record". Similarly, an original headline declaring "80pm storm chaos on way" became "Rain Goddess Spelman to unleash storms and hurricane-force winds from lunchtime today."
The Mail reports that four water firms are resisting the Environment Secretary to the bitter end. South East Water says that restrictions will stay in place until autumn at least, while Sutton and East Surrey Water, Veolia Central and Veolia Southeast declare that underwater aquifers are still not fully recharged. But I am confident that the Rain Goddess will succeed at the last.
Readers in search of further information may want to read the Head of Water Resouces at the Environment Agency on why lots of rain doesn't necessarily mean the end of drought, and can cause flash floods. The Mail suggests that Ms Spelman is also discharging rats, destroying farm crops and is threatening to disrupt Andy Murray's semi-final at Wimbledon.