Sky News: The Environment agency is beginning to prepare for the winter months ahead, they are training with new barriers, pumps, vehicles and drones to test their flood responses. Well, joining me now is the Chairman of Third Generation Environmentalism, Tom Burke […..] Will flood exercises better prepare us?
Tom Burke: Yes they will, and it’s important to be doing this, not the least because we know from the way that the climate is changing that there are going to be more extreme weather events. There are going to be more floods, and indeed as we go on, there is going to be sea level rise to cope with as well. So it is absolutely right for the Environment Agency to be preparing in the way that it is doing for these emergency events. But what is much more important than being ready for the emergencies, is to make sure that we are doing the right sort of planning, to cope with the fact that this problem is going to go on getting worse for some time.
Sky News: And what is the right sort of planning? What would that right sort of planning be?
Tom Burke: I think three things: First of all, when people have been flooded then there is a higher probability that they will be flooded again, so you need to make sure that their insurance cover will allow them not simply to replace what they had before, but to upgrade their own local flood defences. I think that the second thing that is really important is that when we drive forward with building the new homes that people need, we don’t put them on flood plains, making them more vulnerable to flooding. So you have got to make sure that your planning system is connected properly to your flood defence system. And then in the longer run we really do need to have much more strategic planning, and much more investment in how we protect all of our infrastructure from a changing climate and from the way that will manifest itself in people’s lives, very often as floods.
Sky News: How important is it that there is an ultimate focus on the effects of climate change, both on a national stage but also on a global scale as well?
Tom Burke: Well I think that it is very important that we do everything that we can to slow down the rate that the climate is changing, and to stay below the agreed goal of limiting that change to two degrees, and that means that if Britain wants to make sure that other countries do their bit, we have to be doing our bit, and frankly at the moment there are real signs that the government isn’t doing enough to meet the target that we have set ourselves, and that weakens our ability to get other countries to do more, because no country can solve this problem on their own. And if we don’t do that, then we are trying to shoot at a moving target for the level of resilience that we are need to build to floods, and of course that ends up being not only a big interruption to people’s lives but a big waste of money as well.
Sky News: Off the back of the floods that we saw over the Christmas period last year, in cities like Manchester, Leeds and York, there were promises of more government investment, 2.5 billion pounds being invested by 2021. Is that going to be enough?
Tom Burke: I doubt it. I think that the Bonfield Report, the report that came out fairly recently, was very careful in what it said, but it pretty clearly indicated that we are not investing enough now, to protect ourselves from the kinds of stresses that we are likely to see in the future. It’s not only about money, as I said, it is also about planning. Don’t make the problem worse by putting buildings and things in the wrong place.
Sky News: On the point of planning, is it more important to focus on the current barriers and systems that are currently in place, or to think big and look at the huge projects in the future, in the coming months and years?
Tom Burke: Well you have got to take a long term view, and you mustn’t only think of civil engineering. The kinds of things that The Environment Agency is testing out today are fine for emergencies, but in the longer run you want to be thinking about how you use investment in natural capital. In the way, for instance, you use land upstream as catchment areas to divert water to, the way in which you use forests and woods as a way of slowing down the rate at which water flows off the hills, and then becomes a problem when it gets into urban areas. You want to make sure that you don’t straighten out all of your rivers, so that you keep the natural environment, and you make use of the natural infrastructure, to help you to manage the problem. So there are lots of different things to do, so only focusing on the engineering and what you have got to spend, means that you will miss some of the more effective ways to address the problem.
Sky News: On that point, the Deputy Chief Executive of The Environment Agency, just after the flooding that we saw over the Christmas period was calling for a radical new approach, and a real focus on new alternatives. Can you just give us a little bit more detail? I mean what would you be suggesting right now?
Tom Burke: Well, for instance, exactly what I have just said. I am sure that is what he had in mind. You want to be holding water upstream. What happens when you get these very dramatic events that do so much damage to people’s homes, and to our infrastructure, is that you get a very rapid flow of water off the high ground into the low ground. If you have tarmaced the low ground, and if you have straightened your rivers, then what you get is these massive flows of very fast water, which is very damaging. So you want to slow the water down, so you do that by keeping natural vegetation in the waterways, by not straightening them and canalising them, and by planting trees and vegetation upstream. That just holds the water so that it comes down more slowly. Where you have got some areas where you are going to have to have land that you can divert water to, very much as flood plains always have done, you can divert water on to those plains, so that it doesn’t flow so quickly into the cities and urban areas where it is so disruptive to life. Now, quite a lot of that is management. Will you need some cash to help you manage it? Yes. The danger with the wrong kinds of engineered things is that you just shift the problem around, you don’t actually really solve the problem. And you have got to consider that, not only because you have more moisture in the air as a result of climate change that you are going to get heavier rain, as we get to 2030 and beyond you are going to be seeing sea level rise, which means that you have got to think about managed retreat from parts of the coastal zone that are vulnerable to flooding, now not from rain coming down from the high ground, but from sea level rise and winter storm surges actually coming off the sea. So there are quite a lot of different thing to be done and those are the kinds of thing that the Deputy Chief Executive had in mind.
Sky News: How do you allay the fear of member of local communities who have seen flooding happen time and time again?
Tom Burke: I think a really critical point is that you have to involve the communities in the planning for how you are going to deal with floods. It can’t just be done for them; it has really to be done with them, so that people understand. Firstly, so that they see the things that are being done that aren’t always obviously visible. Secondly, they get some real learning about how this is going to happen. You can’t do this by ignoring the communities, and that means local government has to play an increasing role in this, particularly in the cities.
Sky News: Thanks very much for joining us.