EU Referendum

Booker: Somerset floods - a very European disaster


000a Booker-022 Deliberate.jpg

The Daily Telegraph's front page story on Friday – "The worst flood damage could have been prevented" – didn't tell the half of it, writes Christopher Booker in this week's column.

Nor did the front page "exclusive" in the Daily Mail, asking: "Could Met Office have been more wrong?", a story reported on the Booker column last week, of how the Met Office forecast in November that the three months between December and February would most likely be drier than usual – and since repeated in other newspapers.

Writes Booker, devastating evidence has now come to light not just that the floods covering 65 square miles of the Somerset Levels could have been prevented; they were deliberately engineered by the Labour Government in 2009, knowingly regardless of the property and human rights of the thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods would be affected.

Furthermore that wildly misleading Met Office forecast in November led the Environment Agency to take a step which has made the flooding infinitely more disastrous than it need have been, turning what could have been a minor, short-lived inconvenience into a major disaster for the people of Somerset.

For reasons of space, Booker starts the story in 2005 with Labour's "floods minister", Elliot Morley, later to be jailed for fraudulently claiming £30,000 on his MP's expenses. But in fact the linear sequence starts in 1992 with the EU's Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC and then the Water Framework Directive (WFD) 2000/60/EC.

The combined effects of these directives were profound. In the first instance, the Habitats Directive put wildlife conservation on the EU policy map and, through, the Natura 2000 programme, requiring progressive improvements in the conditions of designated conservation areas. Then, following a Commission Communication on 29 May 1995 (COM(95) 189 final) on the "wise use and conservation of wetlands", the WFD put wetlands "restoration" (i.e., flooding) very much on the policy map.

If these two directives were the first step towards disaster, the next was an EU-funded research project, designed to put clothes on the legislation, preparing detailed guidance for Member States on how to implement the law. With no concessions to originality, the project was called "Wise use of floodplains", with the research co-ordinated by the RSPB, alongside the WWF and the Environment Agency, along with international partners.

Running from 1 April 1999 until 1 April 2002 and funded to the tune of €2,108,110.30, with an EU contribution of €1,052,044.45, it had – as Autonomous Mind reveals - been set up under the aegis of RSPB Chief Executive Baroness Young, who was shortly to become Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, also becoming a Vice President of the RSPB. This was to be the start of what some suggest was the ethnic cleansing of the Levels, a plan to remove human habitation and create a new habitat for birds.

Tellingly, the study dealt specifically with the Somerset Levels and Moors, and the Parrett catchment, the concluding report setting out a "Parrett Catchment Project Action Strategy", which was presented to Elliot Morley at a major conference held in Somerset in February 2000.

The "Wise use of floodplains" project was followed by another, called Ecoflood, a title which perfectly illustrated the objective. At a more modest €350,014, it ran from 1 February 2003 to 31 July 2005. The outcome was the production of draft guidelines on "how to use floodplains for flood risk reduction".

Soon to be adopted by the Commission as formal Ecoflood guidelines, there was no doubt about the direction of travel. The Somerset Moors were to be re-flooded, turned into a "washland", returned to its previous, unprotected, undrained condition, as a means of preventing floods elsewhere. At least, that was the theory.

By now, the Habitats Directive and also the companion Birds Directive, had been fully integrated into British law, with the Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 1994, commonly known as the Habitats Regulations. Flood management operating authorities had a duty to comply with these Regulations. As competent authorities under the Regulations they were required to ensure they had regard to the requirements of the Habitats Directive when exercising their functions (Regulation 3(4)).

Locally, back in Somerset in the year 2000, supported by the European Union Regional Development Fund through the Joint Approach for the Management of Flooding (JAF) project, Somerset County Council set up the Parrett Catchment Project (PCP). 

The project put climate change centre-stage, developed "to help manage deep and prolonged flooding, which is likely to become more frequent with climate change”. With the catchphrase, "A future when it rains", one of its objectives was to review "the feasibility of spreading floodwater across the Somerset moors".

Alongside this, the European Commission was consolidating its grip on flood policy, producing in July 2004 a communication (COM(2004)472 final) on flood risk management, ostensibly dealing with flood prevention, protection and mitigation.

Not least, the communication revealed that, "in order to promote the coherent implementation of the Water Framework Directive across the EU, the Water Directors from the (then) 25 Member States and the European Commission were meeting regularly "to work on a common implementation strategy". Floods policy was acquiring a truly European dimension.

This was followed the same month by a Defra consultation document in called "making space for water". It introduced "a new Government strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England". The clue as to its provenance came on page 23, under the heading "European Dimension". It told us that flood risk management was being discussed at the EU level, and the themes under discussion were "all consistent with this consultation and the current approach in England".

By 2005, EU policy was spelled out in Defra's Guidance on Water Level Management Plans for European Sites, stressing the need to upgrade 95 percent of SSSIs (part of the Natura 2000 network) to "favourable condition" by 2010.

In pursuit of this, on 21 January 2005, under the heading "Saving wetland habitats: more money for key sites", Elliot Morley had announced a policy decision, directing that, in order to comply with the Habitats Directive, flooding in Somerset should be artificially promoted because, as he declared, "wildlife will benefit from increased water levels".

Co-opted into this scheme were the 13 Somerset Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs), ancient authorities responsible for keeping the Levels and the Moors drained, now to be suborned into reversing the process and flooding them. Nationwide, the IDBs were to be bribed with £2.3 million a year of taxpayers's money, to let the water in. In Somerset, there was to be even more.

That year, though, an independent evaluation of the Parrett Catchment Project warned that it was "still not completely clear" how much a deliberate increase in flooding would breach "the property rights and Human Rights" of all those whose homes and businesses would be damaged.

Events were now moving in Brussels, with the emergence of a specific EU directive on flood policy. This was Directive 2007/60/EC of 23 October 2007 on the assessment and management of flood risks, the so-called "Floods Directive".

Recital 14 spelled out the requirement that flood risk management plans should focus on prevention, protection and preparedness. But, "with a view to giving rivers more space", planners were required to "consider where possible the maintenance and/or restoration of floodplains", as well as "measures to prevent and reduce damage to human health, the environment, cultural heritage and economic activity". Restoration - i.e., flooding - of drained wetlands was now an EU policy objective.

Later, in December 2009, the Environment Agency and Defra jointly published a River Basin Management Plan for the Severn River Basin District and the South West River Basin Management Plan. These documents noted:
There is a separate planning process for flood and coastal erosion risk management introduced by the new European Floods Directive (Directive 2007/60/EC on the assessment and management of flood risks). This requires that the environmental objectives of the Water Framework Directive are taken into account in flood and coastal erosion plans. Implementation of the Floods Directive in England and Wales will be co-ordinated with the Water Framework Directive. The delivery plans and timescales for the two directives will be closely aligned.
There, in plain English, was a clear statement of the link between environmental objectives and flood planning.

By then, the Environment Agency needed no encouragement to make the link. In its March 2008 plan it had already decided that, "providing a robust economic case for maintenance works on the Somerset Levels and Moors remains a challenge" (p.131), largely as a result of the increased cost burden arising from the WFD, the Habitats Directive and the Waste Framework Directive.

Responding to a Treasury requirement that flood prevention expenditure should show an 8:1 cost-benefit ratio, the Agency pronounced that it was: "appropriate to look again at the benefits derived from our work, particularly focusing more on the infrastructure and the environmental benefits, which previous studies have probably underestimated".

We have, the Agency added, "international obligations to maintain and enhance the habitats and species in the Somerset Levels and Moors, and it is within this context that all decisions have to be made". 

With that, it was clear that the decision had been made to abandon the Levels, and was preparing to scale down the infrastructure. Thus, the Agency claimed, it was "doubtful that all the pumping stations on the Somerset Levels and Moors are required for flood risk management purposes. Many pumping stations are relatively old and in some cases difficult to maintain. It is necessary to decide which ones are necessary particularly in the context of redistributing water".

Moving on then to consider its policy options, the Agency had detailed six, the last and least favourable being to: "take action to increase the frequency of flooding to deliver benefits locally or elsewhere, which may constitute an overall flood risk reduction". This policy option, they said, "involves a strategic increase in flooding in allocated areas" (p.142). The Levels were to be allowed to flood, as a matter of deliberate policy.

With the Government then implementing the Floods directive as the Flood Risk Regulations 2009, there, writ large, was Defra's "making space for water" policy. It was all that was needed, by way of legislative authority, for an already green-dominated Environment Agency to abandon the Somerset Levels and to allow them to flood.

To reinforce the change, Defra commissioned a research project costing £105,032, carried out by Nottingham University, which noted that "EU legislation is really driving change". The authors promoted an "ecosystem approach", an idea at the core of EU policy, driving the move away from traditional flood control into the "sustainability" camp.

The shift in policy can be seen with brutal clarity on the Commission website which gives priority to the "environment", citing a raft of EU measures, including the Water Framework Directive, the Habitats Directive, the Environmental Impact Assessment and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive. The Floods Directive is part of the package and this, we are sternly warned, has to be implemented by 2015.

Just so that there should be no doubts as to where the policy thrust lay, DG Environment in 2011 issued a note, stressing that flood risk management "should work with nature, rather than against it", building up the "green infrastructure" and thus offering a "triple-win" which included restoration (i.e., flooding) of the floodplain.

Meanwhile the Environment Agency had long since stopped properly dredging the River Parrett, which provided the main channel draining floodwater to the sea, because of the exorbitant cost of disposing of silt under EU Waste Framework Directive, and the complicated procedures required by the Habitats Directive and other EU law.

And Morley had already vetoed a proposal to build a new pumping station at Dunball Clyce, at the end of the massive King's Sedgemoor drain. Pumping at this strategic outlet would have allowed much more effective, 24-hour discharge of floodwater into the mouth of the Parrett estuary. Normally, only gravity discharge is possible through the Dunball Clyce (sluice), and then only at low tide.

Instead, an £8 million scheme to "restore" – i.e. increase flooding - on the Moors was implemented. The first part was the "restoration" of Southlake Moor next to Burrowbridge on the Parrett, first flooded in the winter 2009/10, thus fulfilling the requirements of the Habitat Directive. It had been made possible with the money Elliot Morley had provided back in 2005.

The Moor had been drained since the 13th century, but the plan now was to flood Somerset back into the Middle Ages. To achieve this, the scheme included the purchase of a 200 hectares area of farmland by Natural England, used to create a winter habitat for birds when, as the Met Office was already predicting, climate change brought drier winters.

This was where November's forecast came in, because it led the Environment Agency deliberately to flood Southlake Moor in the expectation of a dry winter, keeping the water levels up, to "maintain the conservation interest". Using a special inlet built for the purpose, water was poured in from the River Sowy, instead of being discharged to sea.

When, contrary to expectations, the rains of December and January poured down, this large expanse of water-sodden ground blocked the draining to the already horribly silted-up Parrett of a much larger area of farmland to the east. An area which could have been used as an emergency overspill was already full.

This was made even worse by the lack of that Dunball pumping station at the end of the King's Sedgemoor Drain, vetoed by Morley. As the water levels rose, there was no way of getting rid of the excess water, as the discharge sluice could only be operated at low tide.

Thus came about the disaster which has filled our television screens for weeks, The hydrology of this entire vast area had been sabotaged by the Labour Government's deliberate EU-compliant policy, directed by the Environment Agency, in partnership with Natural England and the RSPB.

000a Dunball-023 pumps.jpg

Only thanks to the intervention of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson are huge Dutch pumps at Dunball now belatedly pouring millions of gallons a day into the sea (pictured above), before dredging the Parrett can begin as soon as is practicable.

Interestingly, further north, where the Huntspill River system had been allowed to function without interference, there had been no local flooding. Thus, not only can we now see just how the flooding further south was deliberately engineered. It was done in blatant disregard for the rights of all those who live and work there.

The evidence is now so strong that they should seriously consider suing the Government for compensation for the damage they have suffered, which could well amount to hundreds of millions of pounds.