February 11, 2013
Source: The Daily Telegraph
With heavy rainfall predicted to get worse in the coming decades, the most cost-effective solution is to improve the infrastructure
Beneath Carlisle, in a modernistic underpass, stands a controversial rock with a colourful curse. Installed to mark the millennium, the Bishop’s Stone – inscribed with part of a 1,069-word imprecation aimed by a 16th‑century prelate at raiding reivers – has been locally condemned for causing “a cascade of calamities” of “biblical proportions”, including foot and mouth disease, rising unemployment, a bakery fire, and the relegation of the local football team.
The invective – which urges “the flood of Noah” to drown the raiders – was also blamed for an inundation seven years ago that swamped 1,844 properties and killed three people, even though the city, at the confluence of three rivers, has suffered similar disasters for centuries. But this week the stone was in the clear.
For, as the worst September storm for 31 years caused rivers to burst their banks and homes to be evacuated across much of Britain, the Cumbrian city remained dry. A £38 million flood defence scheme, completed two years ago, saved some 1,500 homes from the waters, more than paying for itself in one go.
There was similar good news across the flood-hit areas. In all, reports the Environment Agency, such defences protected more than 18,500 properties (Preston and Bishop Auckland were other major beneficiaries), dwarfing the 570 that were inundated.
None of that, of course, is much comfort to the people of Morpeth, Northumberland, who had to go back to the rescue boats again, just four years after they were forced to flee when the River Wansbeck last burst its banks. “We never thought we would have to go through this again,” said one evacuee, pensioner Angela Blackhall, who reckoned she “lost a year of her life” on the previous occasion and now wonders if she can face returning to her home.
The town blames Government cuts. It was led to believe that a protection scheme already proposed before 2008 would be brought forward, only then to face repeated delays. Earlier that year the official report on the devastating 2007 floods in Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire – which caused Britain’s largest peacetime emergency since the Second World War – had called for “future spending rounds” to increase expenditure on defences in real terms. Instead the Coalition cut it back, causing an initial 27 per cent year-on-year drop in the cash it made available.
Yet Mrs Blackhall should take heart, for the Morpeth scheme is to be built after all – following Northumberland County Council’s pledge to chip in up to £12 million, taking advantage of a new Government initiative to encourage local authorities and developers to join it in funding defences. So far this partnership plan has raised an extra £70 million nationwide, and – together with efficiency savings and cost reductions achieved by the Environment Agency, which builds the schemes – it is doing much to blunt the edge of the cuts.
This is obviously welcome: it’s sensible to encourage companies and council-tax payers to contribute to the cost of protection that will benefit them. But – as the House of Commons public accounts committee pointed out earlier this year – it has limitations. Only the richer councils are likely to be able to stump up the cash, while flooding often hits poorer areas hardest. Local government budgets are also being cut; will councillors vote to close care homes to help the Government out? And, welcome as they are, inevitably there is a limit to the savings the Agency can make.
In the meantime, families living in flood-prone areas are doubly at risk, because their ability to insure their homes is increasingly precarious. At present, under a pact with the Government, companies agree to provide cover for properties “at significant risk”, so long as there are official plans to provide protection “within five years”. But as schemes become more uncertain, some householders are failing to get it while others have soaring premiums. The agreement runs out next July, and ministers and insurers are at odds on how to replace it.
Climate change is expected to make things worse. The Environment Agency predicts that heavy rainfall will become three or four times as common over the next decades, increasing flooding tenfold. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor, a vast report on the worldwide effects of global warming published this week, concludes that Britain’s cost of flood damage will triple by 2030.
Spending on defences, a landmark government study concluded, will have to increase as much as sevenfold. Yet this is exceptionally cost-effective, providing £8 of benefit for every £1 spent. As ministers look to infrastructure to boost the economy, this seems a better bet than, say, building HS2 – while lifting a true national curse.
Time to shout timber on the criminal sale of tropical wood
Environmentalists have long condemned felling tropical forests as a crime. Now it looks as if they are, literally, right. Organised crime is responsible for between 50 and 90 per cent of logging in a range of countries in Central Africa, South East Asia and the Amazon Basin, concludes a new report by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme. And it’s easy to see why. The illegal tropical timber trade is now worth up to $100 billion a year.
The discovery undermines what had seemed to be one of the most promising recent developments, an apparent fall in illicit felling, replaced with increased production from special plantations. Instead, it looks as if the criminal organisations have just been “laundering” the timber to make it appear legal.
Figures had suggested, for example, that production from Indonesian plantations soared from 3.7 million to 22 million cubic meters between 2000 and 2008. But now, it turns out, more than half of those tree-growing operations never actually existed.
In some areas, the amount of timber sold as plantation-grown jumped five-fold following crack-downs on illegal logging. And Brazilian authorities appear to have uncovered a scam through which some 3,000 firms falsely “eco-certified” illegally cut timber for selling to environmentally conscious customers in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Much of all this, says the report, is funded by large flows of investment from rich countries into companies involved in the crime. High time to bring the trade above board.
Brighton’s green idea for keeping its pastures sheep-shape
You’ve heard of urban foxes? Well, how about urban sheep? This week – when you might have thought the Lib Dem conference had brought enough woolly creatures to Brighton already – the city took a load of specially bred six-month-old lambs into its fold.
Some 600 of them will be fattened on scrubby pastures bordering, and sometimes squeezed between, housing estates. They will save the council more than £23,000 a year keeping down grass that would otherwise have to be cut, baled and taken away – while encouraging wildflowers and fertilising the ground.
The Brighton flocks are Herdwicks, the hardy sheep from the Lake District: other breeds, designed for modern, “improved” pastures, would be too effete to cope on the rough urban land. They are tended by lookerers, volunteers who give an hour or more a week to keep an eye on them, after being trained in how to handle them, corral them, and spot when they are sick. And they’re even on Twitter, partly to announce their whereabouts as they move around the city, so that people can come and see them, or walk their dogs elsewhere.
Urban sheep have now been introduced elsewhere in Britain, and in the US; but Brighton, which has been bringing them in each autumn for six years or so, insists it’s the pioneer, brandishing them as one more bit of evidence – together with a Green-run council (led by a man called Kitcat) and the party’s first MP – that it’s Britain’s most environmentally friendly city, baa none.