Sunday, 27 December 2015

Newsflash: It rains in Yorkshire

So, it has been raining in the Pennines. I don't think anyone has blamed gay asylum seekers yet but the usual histrionics have already been unleashed, with talking heads eager to pile on their own ignorance.

Just this morning we had George Monbiot on the telly waffling about his pet hobby horse of not dredging rivers and planting more trees. As it happens, in a rainfall event like this, once the ground is saturated, no amount of trees will make much of a difference. More to the point, basic hydrological theory can never be applied uniformly - and not without looking at the local circumstances.

It so happens that the Pennines are my favourite place on earth to avoid people. I know the region very well. What I know is that there is no single point of failure and no single answer. I also know that you rule nothing out in flood prevention.

There are circumstances where dredging isn't the answer but with the canals and man-made waterways, you are looking at a vast reservoir system that very much is part of the solution. Real questions must be asked as to whether the new owners of our canals have kept up with their obligations and whether those obligations are enough.

That said, to our media, nothing has any historical context. Many are keen to blame global warming, but our mill towns are no stranger to flooding. The houses in Hebden Bridge, Holmfirth and Todmorden tend to conform to the configuration we see above where it is only in recent times that the ground floor is used as living quarters. Steps up to the main house are not uncommon. It doesn't take a genius to work out why.

What we do have in abundance is millponds, canal basins and all manner of infrastructure from the industrial revolution that could be put to good use. There are any number of innovative measures that could be of great value while also maintaining a healthy industrial heritage industry.

The problem then is who does it and who pays for it? Put any council tax rise to a referendum and the answer will uniformly be no. Everybody wants flood prevention, nobody wants to pay for it. This prompts ever more shrill calls for foreign aid to be redirected into domestic flood prevention as though that budget had not already been spent a dozen times over on whatever the last crisis was.

At some point we just have to accept that flooding is one of those occasional things we have to put up with. What matters is the speed of recovery and the way it is managed when it happens. In that regard the warning system has worked well, the response has been adequate and the way the police have managed the roads has been surprisingly excellent.

I'm all for asking good questions and looking for blame where there is a single point of failure, as indeed there was with Somerset, but I have little more than a sneer of contempt for the petulant whining coming from the Ukip inclined people blaming it on immigration and foreign aid. I can also find enough room to loathe the crassness of the media - emoting rather than informing, inviting know-nothing talking heads from London to share their ignorance with us.

There are good questions to be asked about this. Have the canals been used to their full potential? Could we build more dams upstream? Have the new owners of the waterways properly invested? Is the structure of local government and the Environment Agency fit for purpose? I could go on.

It would be good to have answers to these questions, but with a system as complex as the Pennine waterways, I don't think it realistic to demand that we never see floods of this type, not least when we're not seeing major casualties.

We could spend an extra billion here and there around the Pennines but looking at the scale of it, I don't see even the best prevention measures withstanding a weather event like this. This is the Pennines we're talking about here. It rains. A lot. Why is anybody surprised?

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