Playing the Blame Game

February 13, 2014, 10:33 AM GMT+0

John Humphrys asks: is anyone to blame for the recent floods, and what can we do differently in the future?

It had to happen. Once it became clear that the floods were something out of the ordinary and they were not going away any time soon, it was perhaps inevitable that we would start blaming the politicians and they would start blaming each other. Is it reasonable to apportion blame and, if so, who should we be throwing the rotten tomatoes at? And, having thrown them, what should we do to protect ourselves in future?

The Weather

Appealing though the idea may be, we can’t actually blame anyone for all that stuff pouring out of the leaden clouds and the winds roaring across our coastlines with the force of a tropical hurricane. Or can we? Maybe it’s our fault. Every one of us. If we hadn’t been pumping all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past decades perhaps the climate wouldn’t be changing as the overwhelming majority of climatologists believe it is. Without getting too technical about it, the boffins at the Met Office seem to think there is a link between climate change and these extreme storms and it’s partly to do with the Pacific Ocean having become much warmer. That, in turn is influencing the jet stream which brings us so much of our weather. The jet stream was unusually strong in December and January, creating perfect conditions for a sequence of strong storms to weave their way across the Atlantic to the UK. A different jet stream extending across North Africa and the North West Pacific has also showed some unusual movements. All that is pretty widely accepted. What is more controversial is whether climate change is man-made: in other words, whether it is our fault.

The Victims

On the face of it, this is a tricky one. Surely they, above all, are the people who deserve our sympathy. It is heartbreaking to watch people desperately trying to protect their homes and, when they fail, having to see their treasured possessions destroyed by foul water and even sewage. But one of the arguments advanced is that many people bought their homes knowing full well that they were prone to flooding. If the builders stopped building on the flood plains and we stopped buying homes near rivers, fewer people would be at risk. Which is all very well, say others, but people have been living on flood plains for centuries and, anyway, conditions change over time. What seemed a perfectly safe place to live a few decades ago may now be much riskier – and it’s not their fault.

The Farmers

Rivers burst their banks when vast amounts of water cascade down from the hills above. It is far more likely to happen if the hills have been cleared of vegetation – especially trees – and used as grazing land. Forested land absorbs dozens of times as much water as grassland. Instead of the rain being sucked up by roots and absorbed by the land, the ground is so compacted by the hooves of sheep or cattle that the water pours down, turning gentle rivers into torrents. That is exacerbated when the rivers are constantly dredged and cleared of vegetation. Where the water would once have spilled over the river banks upstream and done little (if any) damage, it roars down to the plains below and causes massive destruction. Many hydrologists say the answer lies in so-called “re-wilding” the uplands. That might mean restoring bogs that had been drained, planting many more deciduous trees, building more sluices and allowing ponds to form - and even encouraging beavers. One experiment in Scotland showed that beaver damns had retained forty times the water that would otherwise have run downhill. But can we blame the farmers for failing to do all this? They would argue that they have been encouraged to farm more intensively by successive governments anxious to maximise food production. And anyway it’s tough enough as it is, they say, to make a living from hill farming. It is the responsibility of those who encouraged this type of farming to deal with its consequences.

The Environment Agency

There’s no question who the people of the Somerset Levels would like to see in the stocks when their villages eventually dry out: officials from the government agency who, they say, have refused to listen to their warnings over recent years. Instead of dredging the rivers and installing pumps to protect people and their homes, the agency, led by Lord Smith, have been concerned only with the wildlife. Their charge is a simple one: the agency has cared far more about butterflies and birds than human beings. One Conservative MP called Lord Smith a ‘git’ and said he’d like to stick his head down the loo and flush. The cabinet minister Eric Pickles used rather less colourful language in the Commons, but also suggested he wouldn’t stand in the way if Smith chose to resign. He told the BBC: "We made a mistake, there's no doubt about that. We perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice. I am really sorry that we took the advice … we thought we were dealing with experts."

Lord Smith (a former Labour minister) says those charges are nonsense. He accused ministers of "playing politics" with the flood crisis and "getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job". In an article for the Guardian he wrote: "In a lifetime in public life, I've never seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces." He blamed government budget cuts and "value-for-money" rules imposed by the Treasury for curbing the Environment Agency's response. And he said the agency's work was not only limited by its budget, but also by rules on value imposed by the Treasury. Most flood schemes need to prevent £8 of damage for every £1 spent to go ahead. On dredging, Smith said the agency had recognised in 2012 the local view that dredging would help to carry water away faster after a flood and had assigned £400,000: the maximum sum allowed under Treasury rules.

The Media

Have we ourselves contributed to the general atmosphere of crisis by overplaying the events of the past weeks? Our critics point out that, while some rural areas such as the Somerset Levels have certainly been hit appallingly hard, it is notable that our towns and cities have been largely spared – and that is partly because of flood defences installed over the past decades and because many rivers have been allowed to silt up. The Thames flooded upstream, but heavily populated areas such as west London stayed dry. And, the critics say, there is one other factor – the most important of all. There have been only a very small number of casualties. We make great play of the claims that these are the worst floods for centuries, but it is only sixty years since the terrible floods on the east coast of England and Scotland. A total of 326 people died in two days.

All of which is true, say the media’s defenders, but it is also true that a very large number of people have had to abandon their homes and their businesses and it is going to take them a long time to put their lives back together again. And even then they will face the questions: might it be even worse next time?

Your Views

  • Who do you think is to blame?
  • Should we, as a nation, commit far more money to the sort of flood defences they have, say, in the Netherlands?
  • Should we ban people from building on flood plains in future and simply tell those who already live there: sorry, but it was your choice?
  • Should we force farmers to manage the uplands differently?
  • Or sack Lord smith and replace the Environment Agency?
  • On a bigger scale, do you believe climate change is the cause of the extremer weather and, if so, what can or should we do about it?
  • Or perhaps you take the view that this is simply the work of Mother Nature and it is foolish to pretend we will ever be able to tame her completely.
  • And if you believe in God, should we all get on our knees pronto and start praying!

Let us know your view