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What the authorities won’t tell you about the flooding

This article was originally published in the Newcastle Journal earlier this month:

Amid all the devastation and recriminations over the flooding, hardly anybody mentions one factor that may not be the sole cause but certainly hasn’t helped, and that is the almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000.

Yet until then, for all of recorded history, it almost went without saying that a watercourse needed to be big enough to take any water that flowed into it, otherwise it would overflow and inundate the surrounding land and houses. Every civilisation has known that, except apparently ours. It is just common sense. City authorities and, before them, manors and towns and villages, organised themselves to make sure their watercourses were cleansed, deepened and sometimes embanked to hold whatever water they had to carry away.

In nineteenth century Cockermouth they came up with an ingenious way of doing this. Any able-bodied man seeking bed and board for the night in the workhouse was required to take a shovel and wheelbarrow down to the River Derwent and fetch back two barrow-loads of gravel for mending the roads. This had the triple benefit of dredging the river, maintaining the roads and making indigent men useful.

In Cumbria they knew they had to keep the river clear of the huge quantities of gravel that were washed down from the fells, especially in times of flood. For Cumbrian rivers are notoriously quick to rise as the heavy rain that falls copiously on the High Fells rapidly runs off the thin soils and large surface area over which it falls. Cumbrian people have always known that their rivers would be subject to such sudden and often violent inundations and prepared for them by deepening and embanking their channels. Such work was taken very seriously.

There are numerous records over many centuries of the Cockermouth Court Leet (Manor Court) imposing fines on occupiers for neglecting to cleanse the watercourses that ran through their land. So important was it to prevent flooding that the court often issued detailed and explicit instructions to parishes how to cleanse their various watercourses. For example in 1718 (and again in 1772) certain owners, whose land bordered the river, were fined for allowing it to become ‘beaten out of its course by sand and gravel’ and given two months to dredge it out.

It was obvious to people, who depended on the land for their living that failing to keep the rivers clear of sand and gravel would cause them to burst their banks and destroy in a few hours fertility that had taken generations to create, wash away their houses, and drown their livestock.

Last century the obligation to dredge out the rivers was transferred to local river boards, consisting of farmers and landowners who knew the area and its characteristics, and who had statutory responsibilities to prevent or minimise flooding.

But all this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when we adopted the European Water Framework Directive in 2000. No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’. ‘Heavily modified waters’, which include rivers dredged or embanked to prevent flooding, cannot, by definition, ever satisfy the terms of the directive. So, in order to comply with the obligations imposed on us by the EU we had to stop dredging and embanking and allow rivers to ‘re-connect with their floodplains’, as the currently fashionable jargon has it.

And to ensure this is done, the obligation to dredge has been shifted from the relevant statutory authority (now the Environment Agency) onto each individual landowner, at the same time making sure there are no funds for dredging. And any sand and gravel that might be removed is now classed as ‘hazardous waste’ and cannot be deposited to raise the river banks, as it used to be, but has to be carted away.

On the other hand there is an apparently inexhaustible supply of grant money available for all manner of conservation and river ‘restoration’ schemes carried out by various bodies, all of which aim to put into effect the utopian requirements of the E W F Directive to make rivers as ‘natural’ as possible.

For example, 47 rivers trusts have sprung up over the last decade, charities heavily encouraged and grant-aided by the EU, Natural England, the Environment Agency, and also by specific grants from various well-meaning bodies such as the National Lottery, water companies and county councils. The West Cumbria Rivers Trust, which is involved in the River Derwent catchment, and includes many rivers that have flooded, is a good example. But they all have the same aim, entirely consonant with EU policy, to return rivers to their ‘natural healthy’ state, reversing any ‘straightening and modifying’ which was done in ‘a misguided attempt to get water off the land quicker’. They only think it ‘misguided’ because fast flowing water contained within its banks can scour out its bed and maybe wash out some rare crayfish or freshwater mussel, and that conflicts with their (and the EU’s) ideal of a ‘natural’ river .

The Environment Agency has spent millions of pounds on ‘flood defences’ and still has the gall to warn us piously that they are not guaranteed to work and if our houses are flooded and livestock washed away and drowned, we will just have to accept it. The climate is changing, they say, live with it. But the real reason they erect expensive and largely ineffective flood defences, as at Carlisle and Keswick, is because such work does not interfere with the flow of the river in its bed, so it does not infringe the EU Water Framework Directive.

Also there is EU money available for flood ‘defences’, but none for the very measure that would do some good, namely removing the huge build-up of gravel from the river bed. This is hardly mentioned, and if it is, they try to make out that it would do more harm than good. Maybe to molluscs and invertebrates, but not to the devastated people whose homes are being destroyed time and time again.

No. The truth they don’t tell you is that even if they wanted to, neither the UK government, nor the Environment Agency has the power to dredge – or the money. So next time you see David Cameron and his MP acolytes swanning around Cumbria in wellingtons, high-viz jackets and hard hats, wringing their hands and promising to do whatever it takes to protect us from flooding, ask them how exactly they intend to get round the European Water Framework Directive. And they would have to tell you they can’t. Not while we remain in the EU. So any sympathy politicians express for the plight of their constituents is either based on ignorance, or deceit. It’s about time we asked them which it is.

Philip Walling is the author of the best-selling Counting Sheep published in 2014 by Profile Books and is currently writing a book on man’s relationship with water.  His post is reproduced courtesy of  Roger Tallbloke.

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25 Comments on What the authorities won’t tell you about the flooding

  1. I did hear one brief mention of grudging on Sky newspaper review 11.30 pm tonight
    Thanks a million!!!!!!!!

  2. The best reaction to a thread I have seen on “Daily Politics”
    Pity we don`t hear anything in the wider world media from our “supine or emasculated” politicians and that includes UKIP

  3. If this yet not another reason to leave the bl**dy cr*p that is the EU. When was a kid we lived by a river and every year without fail a tracked digger would come along and dredge the river and we never had a problem with our garden being flooded, so come lets get rivers and ditches dredged and cleaned. We got enough in the prison system and taking my tax money to pay for their 50inch TVs and Playstations, lets get them earning what they been given for doing sweet F. all

    • Yes, Andy, there are reasons in abundance for leaving the EU asap, but I never thought “The Drowning of the North” would be one of them. Basically, just think of whatever is wrong with the UK today and you can bet that the EU is at the bottom of it somewhere, somehow. It’s like being crushed and swallowed by a python.

  4. It’s not a simple as that. TREES. read http://www.monbiot.com/2015/12/08/a-storm-of-ignorance/
    Read George Monbiot , “A storm of Ignorance”

    • Monbiot is the chief cheerleader of the “warmist” brigade. He is a propagandist. Never ever take anything he writes as being gospel. He was one of those who “edited out” the Medieval Warming Period in order to arrive at the “hockey stick graph” so his credibility is zero, in my books certainly.

      • Absolutely right, Brian. I wouldn’t believe anything written in the Guardian or any Guardianista. They don’t give a fig for the well being of the British people whose forbears have lived here for generations. They don’t believe that this country belongs to the people who have made this nation what it is, especially the British working class men and women on whose backs it was made. Guardian hacks would be happier if the population was just an ethnic hotch potch of incomers among which the indigenous white North Europeans were a minority or a memory. Funny that, because these Briton-haters always have the utmost sympathy and respect for the human rights and survival of the indigenous people of ….well, anywhere else in the world really.

  5. It does make you wonder about the collective intelligence of UK voters when they are so easily misled by PR guru’s like the newly knighted Lynton Crosby. Why are they so eager to adopt the carefully crafted propaganda and believe the politically motivated rhetoric?. These people do have a tough job but I am not sure that they are the trustworthy representatives we need. Rather have people that stand up for us all than those who service their political ends.

  6. Erm they did dredge in the Calder Valley in 2014.

  7. Cameron got a hostile reception in York when he sloshed around there in his wellies. Apparently, the locals had something to say about spending more money from foreign aid on flood prevention in foreign countries than in the UK. When will our pathetic leaders learn that it is futile and immoral to lavish abroad money that they’ve had to borrow at a high interest rate while ignoring the needs of the people they were elected to represent? They’re spending our taxes to make themselves look good in the EU or the UN. Only a UKIP government would put an end to this travesty of governance.

  8. EU legislation has never prevented any member state (Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany etc.), from dredging. Under the current austerity obsessed govt., agencies have been encouraged to interprete the rules to cut budgets and blame external forces. If one keeps blaming the EU for UK govt. policy, eventually someone will believe it.

  9. Something else the the political elite living in Cushieville don’t tell us.

  10. Pam you are right this is dynamite.
    Surely this is an issue that all the parties can make common ground on.
    In fact defence of Realm is defence against the elements not just its borders.
    A cautionary tale:_
    Cleaning the dykes (ditches) in the fens was the responsibility of local landowners, if flooding occurred and they had been negligent, it wasn`t unknown for villagers to chuck them in.
    Better get dredging lads!

  11. Clearly we are all under the misunderstanding that the EU possesses some intelligence and understands the consequences of its actions.

  12. Dredging (and lack thereof) is definatly a large part of the problem. However it doesn’t all fall on the EU. The whole Environment Agency/SEPA/SEARS madness is multiple governments trying to move important government work further and further away from their control, giving them less and less money and then wondering why things don’t get done. Huge amount of work to be done on a budget of pennies. Also there is next to no private dredging done now – any profits from the sand etc that could be taken disappeared 5-10 years ago and businesses aren’t interested in paying the costs anymore. Our local one used to do a 10 mile stretch and we’d had 1 flood in 20 years. They’ve stopped a few years ago and we’re on our second flood in the last month. Landowners who’s responsibility it now is don’t seem to care as there’s a nice long garden down from their stately home down to the river and plenty of space to get wet.

  13. This isn’t really about the EU. If you want to know what is going on you need to Google “UN agenda 21” and “UN agenda 30”. While you are about it Google “Georgia Guide Stones.” It is all about “sustainablity” and Global governance. If you think the EU is bad, You aint seen nothing yet.

  14. Wow!! Over 8000 visits to this article since I first looked when there were only about 53. The power of the internet is amazing.
    Many, many thanks to Philip Walling for writing the article and to Roger Tallbloke for disseminating it and enlightening so many people. I hope everyone in this country gets to read it and fume over the fact that we cannot run our own country for the benefit and safety of our own citizens. The damage done to homes, businesses, communities and the lives of ordinary people who spent lifetimes building their personal havens and security only to see it ruined beyond repair is heartbreaking. The failure of elected politicians to protect this country from foreign depredations for 40 years is unforgivable and will not be forgiven.

  15. Also, the absurdity of building houses where the water course naturally flows is beyond belief. Landowners who want to sell their land, developers who want to make money, building companies who want to make money and planning authorities with no balls to say NO, government with no balls to say NO st appeal… Ridiculous population growth and immigration combined. We shouldn’t have to restrict watercourses just keep humans from building in the way ….

  16. This is fascinating and makes excellent sense. I wonder what’s happening in the Netherlands? The whole country is based upon the principle of artificial drainage.

    • Hi Mike, ‘we’ dredge once a year. Advertisements in all newspapers prompt landowners to start dredging. ‘It’s that time of the year again’. Dredging is a way of life. We have to dredge and work together. It’s done like that for ages, otherwise The Netherlands would not exist. We have never been restricted (or elt restricted) by the EU to maintain our waterways. For centuries we have had a water maintanance body with at the head the ‘Dijkgraaf” the Dike Count. He/she would organise repairs of the dikes and maintanance of the waterways. The title Dijkgraaf does not exist anymore. The governing body for healthy waterways does. Everybody needs to work together, otherwise we would not exist. The Netherlands would disappear under water caused by huge floods.

      • Then your government will be ignoring the EU Directive, quite rightly so, it is a shame our politicians haven’t got the ballen to do the same

  17. It is becoming more and more evident that he EU is a complete waste of both time and money as regards our country.

  18. The EU won’t allow us to dredge our rivers so perhaps they will pay for a huge umbrella to put over the north

  19. This information is sickening in its confirmation of the stupidity and heedless ignorance of the EU, and the appalling cowardice of our politicians in conforming to legislation that harms our own people. I knew there was something seriously lacking in the government’s ‘flood defences’ but I thought it was the money to do a proper job. I should have known that the EU was at the bottom of it somewhere. This article should be spread far and wide in the media and online, but I don’t know how to do it. Is there anyone with the know how to disseminate it? Can Jonathan Arnott and other MEPs get this message over, because it would certainly help some people to make up their minds about voting LEAVE.

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