Boris Johnson memorably described his predecessor, David Cameron, as a “girly swot.” Others accused Cameron of “chillaxing” – an “essay crisis” prime minister with an insouciance towards keeping on top of the detail. The length of Cameron’s memoirs, For the Record, suggests that Johnson’s swipe is closer to the mark. The good news for Johnson is that means that often, when a problem comes along, he doesn’t need to pick up the phone to Cameron for advice but just reach for this useful volume and check the index.
Let us consider flooding, for example. Cameron writes:
“Politics is about whatever nature throws at you. And as 2013 became 2014, nature threw everything it had got at Britain. Coastal storms hit East Anglia and floods inundated Kent. Rainfall turned the Somerset Levels into lakes, and lashed Wales and the south coast. Then, in February, the cliffs at Dawlish in Devon collapsed, destroying the mainline railway track and cutting Cornwall off from the rest of the country.
“I knew by now the dangers of a tardy response to disasters, so I visited several of the places affected. I hadn’t yet made it to the Somerset Levels. This low-lying manmade environment was dredged and irrigated centuries ago. But not enough had been done to protect it. Some experts genuinely thought we should let the floods run their course. I was outraged – you can’t say that about someone’s home, someone’s farm. If it’s a place where people live then it has to be protected.
“Sadly, the Environment Agency had failed on that score. It seemed to worry more these days about newts and butterflies than homes and livelihoods. And while the number of homes and businesses that were flooded was just a tenth of that in the floods of 2007, the papers portrayed us as fiddling while Britain was submerged.
“To make up for our slow start, we had to go overboard to compensate. I visited Somerset several times and chaired a series of COBR meetings. I saw the local MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, Ian Liddell-Grainger, on a weekly basis, and promised the people living there that we would dredge all the waterways – I’d do it myself it I had to.”
Before 1989, flood defence was managed by the National Rivers Authority. Rivers were dredged regularly when needed. After that the Environment Agency took over and dredging was generally discontinued. That could mean the difference between it taking five days of heavy rain for overtopping to be a risk – or just two days. Attempts to blame climate change are not convincing. Welland and Deepings Internal Drainage Board has kept rainfall records since 1829. The heaviest rain was in 1880. The issue is not that the rain in recent years has been heavier in the area – it is neglect from the EA. The River Welland is “clogged with weed” while the River Witham “is in dire need of being slubbed”. If climate change really does mean more heavy rainfall in the future then that is hardly a reason to tolerate the EA’s lamentable approach.
Flood defence work has also become vastly more expensive with the Environment Agency spending “£500 per vole to remove them from where flood defence work was due to start. In another case, a £20,000 repair job ballooned to £200,000 by the time badgers were moved to man-made setts – which they promptly abandoned.” A whistleblower blog has given abundant evidence of wasteful spending.
Not that the abject failure to prevent flooding is a great triumph for animal welfare. Sheep, as well as people, have drowned.
Yet the EA’s funding keeps being increased. It spent nearly £1.4 billion last year. The more hopeless the performance, the more of our money DEFRA hands over.
Jamie Blackett, a farmer and author, writes in the Daily Telegraph:
“The greater problem lies in the Environment Agency. Officials there are simply incapable of understanding that, like it or not, most of our watercourses are now in some way artificial and need human action. Their refusal to countenance dredging has resulted in millions of small mammals, insects and invertebrates being drowned, with a consequent impact on birdlife.”
He proposes that “responsibility for river management be removed from his agency and given back to local boards.” Would that not be consistent with the Government’s policy of localism?
The media pressure when there is a flood is on the Prime Minister of the day to visit – wade about in wellington boots. Perhaps bring along a mop. Then move on to the next thing. Cameron was enough of a “girly swot” to identify the flawed approach of the EA and to remember to include a reprimand in his memoirs. But then when it came to actually doing something about it – which would really mean the difficult and controversial task of abolishing the EA – he found it easier to chillaxe.
How much more unnecessary flooding must be endured before this piece of unfinished business is dealt with?