“I believe that we have to force the sea back and keep it out, not retreat from it, as we have done for years.”
No, these are not the words of King Cnut (who, anyway, was simply demonstrating the impossibility of the task), but of one our illustrious Members of Parliament in a recent session in the House of Commons addressing the current flooding problems. The Honourable Gentleman represents the folk of central Devon, part of the southwest of England battered by continuing storms and floods: his ambition is politically admirable, if ludicrous – perhaps he hasn’t actually been to the beach recently or had the time to listen to people who actually know what they are talking about.
The storms of the last two months across the UK have been (and continue to be) extraordinary, but not unprecedented. Large stretches of the British coastline have been re-organized, dunes and beaches have disappeared, the great pebble bank of Chesil Beach along the Jurassic Coast has been re-sculpted, rocky coastal icons have crumbled, and, in some areas, the shoreline is now tens of meters landward of where it was a couple of months ago. There have been a few fascinating revelations by the shifting sands – the oldest human footprints outside of Africa (subsequently washed away), fossil forests and numerous ancient shipwrecks, but the overall impacts of the storms have been devastating. And nowhere more so than the so-called Somerset Levels whose current condition is illustrated at the head of this post. The Levels comprise a large area of central and northern Somerset, clay and peat marshes that have been called a ‘West country bayou’ and lie on average below the high spring tide level of the Bristol Channel. Theirs is a man-made landscape, a testament to attempts to manage and prevent routine flooding that have been going on since Roman times. The Wikipedia entry on the Levels contains the following interesting suggestion: “one explanation for the county of Somerset's name is that, in prehistory, because of winter flooding people restricted their use of the Levels to the summer, leading to a derivation from Sumorsaete, meaning land of the summer people." The history of the position of the coastline over the last seven thousand years is dramatically charted on a series of maps on the ‘Somerset Coastal Change’ website. Mediaeval monks constructed hundreds of kilometres of drainage channels, and engineers from the Netherlands would later assist with further projects to ‘reclaim’ agricultural land. But the topography didn’t change and nor did the weather. The Levels have always experienced flooding from rain and storm surges – sea ‘defences’ are often overwhelmed and seawater meets freshwater from flooding rivers unable to cope with the flow from the surrounding hills. In the winter of 1872, more than 250 square kilometres were under water for six months and in 1919 a similar area was flooded with seawater to the point where the land was rendered unusable for years.
In recent times, the loss of peat, the increasing areas of concrete, tarmac and roofs, the failure to continue traditional dredging of drainage channels and the planned destruction of the water-retaining upland ecology have all only increased the risk, as is being witnessed today. Close to a hundred square kilometres are under water, one village has had to be evacuated and abandoned, and thousands of head of livestock removed – the problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is not only homes and infrastructure that are under threat, but this is also land that plays a key role in the country’s agricultural economy. Time for the politicians to sit up and take notice.
The politicians talk heatedly and melodramatically in London and occasionally make forays for photo opportunities to the flooded areas. It didn’t help that our Environment Secretary showed up in a suit and city shoes and talked to virtually nobody; the head of the Environment Agency (yes, oddly, someone entirely different from the Environment Secretary) at least arrived sporting a new pair of wellington boots (‘wellies’ as we affectionately refer to them), but they hardly got wet, never mind muddy. It didn’t help that our eccentric Prince toured the Levels, endearing himself to at least some residents, yet his Crown Estates do virtually nothing of practical value. It doesn’t help that the politicians are blaming each other and each other’s agencies, the previous government's actions of twenty years ago, and the deficiencies in the advice that they receive. There is a sudden political urgency that is profoundly undermined by the fact that those same politicians, in their enthusiasm for ‘austerity’, have systematically eviscerated the funding for addressing these issues and cut the staff responsible. Our illustrious Prime Minister attempts to channel Churchill and talks firmly of ‘lessons learned’ – like so many of his colleagues, he must think we are all idiots.
And the waters of serious and immediate discussion are clouded by political and scientific angst over the extent to which climate change is to blame - arguably an entirely separate discussion.
The problem is, as most of us (including the residents of the Levels) appreciate, that there is no easy solution. Yes, dredging may help, but river hydraulics are complex and larger, dredged, channels may not necessarily move more water, just the same amount but more slowly. Hastily piling boulders on the beach (the image below is from a day or so ago) is hardly a sustainable solution to coastal erosion, nor one that takes any notice of the nature of the beach.
Last week, a provocative article appeared in The Guardian newspaper here titled Should coastal Britain surrender to the tides? The headline read:
Ferocious recent storms have destroyed natural landmarks and placed communities at risk. But simply patching up our defences won't work. Our coast is changing, and we must change with it.
The entire article is worth reading and raises questions that no politician has the courage to address:
The government's approach is clear: patch up and protect, or "hold the line" in the jargon of the shoreline management plans in place around our island. But any GCSE [high school] geographer can explain that hard defences will never stop erosion…
"Are we just going to be applying more sticking plasters [bandaids] on things that will pull off again and again?" asks Phil Dyke, the National Trust's coast and marine adviser. "Or are we going to take a proper look at vulnerable places and think about rollback, adaptation and realignment, and allow the undeveloped parts of the coast to function more naturally?"
The concluding sentence reads “Like Icarus with the sun, so it is with us and the sea: we cannot resist living too close, craving its fun and solace from cradle to grave, despite its destructive majesty.”
This is a relationship that is by no means unique to the British Isles but it is one that needs a fundamental, and potentially painful, re-examination. However, if this is in the hands of the politicians and the lawyers, the grounds for optimism are subject to relentless erosion.
(There are, nevertheless, stirrings of awareness and debate - on the BBC website, this piece, titled "Row between government and Environment Agency gathers pace - how should flood money be spent?" has appeared while I was writing this post.)
[Porthleven Harbour storm photo Bernie Pettersen/SWNS]