Poor old Chris (Lord) Smith! The Environment Agency chairman was bound to become as unpopular as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson when he dared to pronounce on the prolonged problems of flooding around the country.
Responding to criticism of the agency’s earlier decision not to dredge rivers in Somerset, he said: “Flood defences cost money; and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods – in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or East Anglia? There’s no bottomless purse and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect.”
Fair point, you might say. We can’t afford to do everything. And, alas, we can’t turn the clock back: if we could, we might have avoided some pitfalls, such as building housing developments on floodplains.
Hold on! It’s easy to be awfully reasonable, say choices are difficult and insist we can’t pay for everything.
But there’s a heavy tax burden for anyone in reasonably or well-paid work in the UK: and we all pay council tax as well. Many would feel they pay a hell of a lot, and might justifiably expect more from their taxes.
I don’t know the ins and outs of drainage. Nonetheless, it does seem pretty clear that, had the Environment Agency kept all those banked rivers and drainage channels around the Somerset levels properly dredged and clear of silt, the flooding would have been less severe.
Centuries ago, people knew what they were doing when they built houses near rivers. Look at the aerial pictures of Muchelney in Somerset: it’s a mediaeval village with a fine old abbey, built on a hill above the floodplains. So (as far as I know) it hasn’t actually been flooded: its problem is being cut off from the rest of the world for more than a month because every connecting road is impassable, except by boat.
Meanwhile, farmers there can only sit and watch in impotent fury as their crops rot beneath the waters. I can appreciate why they’re cross.
Governments have to make hard decisions: they always say, as Chris Smith reiterated, that money’s limited. They will inevitably take Smith’s proposed option of choosing town over country, putting the money for flood prevention where greater numbers of people are affected.
That makes mathematical sense. Government can afford to overlook the countryside: there isn’t the density of population (or of votes), so statisticians will talk about value for money, relative expenditure per head of (sparse) population. On such measures the countryside will always lose out.
But doesn’t that view value some people as more important, more deserving of help, than others?
If it does, that seems to me to undermine the whole principle of an egalitarian, democratic society which claims to look after its less fortunate members.
We all like to criticise our local councils: providing our services, they furnish endless reasons for moaning. But when Northumberland and Durham alike are so short of cash that they sell off their administrative centres for housing; when Newcastle’s leader feels obliged to present unacceptable cuts on a stark “no alternative” platform; when all government appears able to do for flooded parts of the country is too little, too late, we might be forgiven for wondering (a) whether Westminster has any kind of grip and (b) whether it gives a damn about anywhere more than an hour from the seat of power.
Yes, we in the provinces might feel we have good reason to despair of government.
As for Lord Smith, his less-than-tactful comments have attracted a storm of criticism. He’s now under attack for holding down 11 jobs in total (to be fair, not all of them are paid!).
You know, if my crops were ruined or I still had two feet of water in my living room after a month, I too might be questioning whether Smith had really been focused on his job.
Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.