11 February 2014

Plain madness keeps #flooding in

You know that the world has gone bonkers when the Secretary of State for Defence is sent along to defend the government’s response to the recent floods on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. The Secretary of State for Defence and Flooding rightly questioned the practice of building on floodplains. Then a Tory MP, Nick Herbert, went into the studio and complained about “foul water” sloshing around the place and plans to build houses on places at risk of flooding in his constituency.

The best bit was yet to come. Today then invited John Stewart of the Home Builders Federation to defend the industry’s position. The discussion then descended into real lunacy in his “don’t blame us guv” stance.

Mr Stewart’s defence started with an explanation of what builders do about water running off of the places where they put new homes. No one, he insisted, had built houses in unsuitable places. The builders all had planning permission and they all had to install SUstainable Drainage Systems (SUDS) to ensure that their new developments did not contribute to local flooding.

So far so good, but then the fun began. In any case, Mr Stewart continued, it wasn’t the houses that caused all that flooding. “I suspect that the water comes from somewhere else, not from the new housing itself”, he told to James Naughtie. Mr Stewart didn’t just say it once, he repeated this strange assertion.

After you have picked yourself up off the floor, the immediate response is to ask which bit of the word “floodplain” doesn’t Mr Stewart understand. Flood or plain? Of course the water came “from somewhere else”. (And no, not just the sky.) That’s what a floodplain does. It is somewhere for water to sit until it feels the urge to move on.

Stand on many a floodplain in England and look around you. What do you see? Here in Sussex the view often takes in the South Downs, a rather nice range of hills that we walk as often as possible, rain permitting. Guess what, Mr Stewart, water runs off those hills. Where does it go? Into the flat bits at the bottom. These are floodplains, places where water hangs about until a nearby stream or river has emptied out enough to carry away the water.

The water that floods those houses might even come from that river. Rivers do not have infinite water carrying capacity, as they know on the Somerset Levels. Shove too much water into a river and it may well overflow on to the floodplain.

Here is what the Foresight report Future Flooding has to say on the subject:

“Nearly 2 million properties in floodplains along rivers, estuaries and coasts in the UK are potentially at risk of river or coastal flooding.”
If Mr Stewart’s understanding of earth sciences reflects that in the rest of the building world, heaven help us. The one consolation is that he is Director of Economic Affairs at the Home Builders Federation, “The voice of the home building industry”. With any luck the HBF can also call upon people with some understanding of hydrology.

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