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.