Wednesday, 5 February 2014

What's the solution to the Somerset floods?

Carol Somper

Technical Director

There have been several news reports and articles over the last few weeks about the Somerset floods, with raging debates as to whether dredging the local River Parrett is essential, or a colossal waste of time, effort and money. Good scientific evidence developed by the University of Bristol shows that it’s invariably the latter as the sediment gets washed back up-river almost as soon as it’s been removed at vast expense to the tax payer. So what can be done about the costly flood damage to homes and the misery inflicted on those living in affected areas? Swift and effective compensation is vital, but how to prevent it happening again, year after year, especially with wetter winters and more extreme weather events coming at us? 
The Parrett catchment and Somerset Levels is a very good example of where ‘sticking plaster’ solutions and knee-jerk reactions need to be ditched in favour of something much more radical, but ultimately more sustainable. If housing is to remain in what has historically been marshland, drained in recent centuries for farming, then we need different housing models, using raised platforms and stilts, with space underneath for boats and not just cars. We need more resilient transport infrastructure and utilities that can cope with excess storm-water and the hazards it brings. Until we get the design solutions right by using a systems-based approach, we must stop building the wrong type of development in the wrong place, largely ignoring how natural systems work. Local planning in any area must take into account how to manage and make space for water, for when we have too much at once, and to store it for times of drought when we have too little. 
The Parrett catchment draining the Somerset Levels is a complex river system with strong tidal flow and the situation is exacerbated by complex and fragmented land ownership. The big question is whether those people living in homes built in the 20th century and in the last decade or so should be re-homed elsewhere on drier, higher ground. Ultimately, the costs of doing so would be less than the ongoing costs of dredging, repair to homes and insurance premiums and pay outs (if they can be had).
Our planning system has the potential to make this vital space for water, to aid catchment management and to help secure future water supplies for people and commerce without increasing flood risk. If our planning system is to work as well as it can in this respect, we still need to take a systems approach, factoring in how land is farmed and managed, especially in the upper catchments.  A strategic combination of flood storage and Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUDs) measures supported by catchment sensitive farming, such as that undertaken by Natural England in the Parrett, is becoming an increasing necessity, not just a nice to have. But is this strategic approach really happening in other than a piece-meal and ad-hoc way? 

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