A man paddles his canoe down the flooded main A361 road as it enters the village of East Lyng, 13 February 2014. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The storm factory: climate change and the winter floods

In Somerset, the novelty of canoes has long since worn off.

I reached Burrow Mump two hours after the soldiers. Major Al Robinson and Sergeant Leigh Robinson of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment were the first representatives of the military sent to the Somerset Levels, and, having climbed the granite-topped outcrop that stands above the village of Burrowbridge and surveyed the expanse of water below on the morning of 30 January, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do to help.

Burrow Mump, like its better-known counterpart Glastonbury Tor, is a rare high spot in the low-lying basins of moorland known as the Somerset Levels: Burrow Mump stands in the western half, between the Quantock and Polden Hills, and Glastonbury Tor overlooks its eastern reaches, which are known to those of a certain disposition as “the Vale of Avalon”. Neither would seem particularly imposing anywhere – it takes no longer to scramble up the muddy slopes of Burrow Mump than it does to climb Primrose Hill in north London – but in the flat, sparsely inhabited lands of the Levels, they have acquired a quasi-mystical significance: both are topped by ruined chapels, and both draw visits from sight­seers and pilgrims of all kinds, including an increasing numbers of tourists drawn to the Levels by reports of an inundation routinely described as biblical in scale.

The sheet of water that lapped at the edge of the car park and rose halfway up the trunks of trees on the lower slopes of Burrow Mump was broken here and there by trees and gateposts – the dots and dashes of a visual Morse code indicating the outlines of the fields below. To the east, it was enclosed by the Polden Hills and to the west it stretched far beyond Burrowbridge. The only dry land to the south was the dark green verges of the embankment that hems in the conjoined waters of the Rivers Parrett and Tone, carrying them towards the town: as most of the moors lie below sea level, the waterways have been built higher than the surrounding land to allow them to drain.

The diversion of the Tone was the first significant step in the unending task of draining the Levels. It used to run further west, between the village of East Lyng and the “island” of Athelney, to which King Alfred retreated before defeating the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878, but in the 14th century it was diverted into a man-made channel that joins the Parrett just north of Burrowbridge.

When I had walked across the bridge in the middle of the village half an hour earlier, the water was barely passing beneath the arches, and an improvised wall of sandbags and tarpaulin built along the east bank was protecting the houses that are separated from the river by only a narrow road. One of the homeowners, who was leaning on the gate, said that his house was always damp but didn’t often flood: paradoxically, the houses closest to the river are less vulnerable than most. The situation on the west side of the village, where the flood water had gathered, was worse: two of the three roads that diverged from the road across the bridge were closed and there were emergency crews working in the yard of a house in an attempt to save it from the encroaching lake.

The Parrett, which rises in Dorset, drains an area of 660 square miles, or about half of Somerset’s land area, and last month, according to the Environment Agency, it received the highest January rainfall on record – twice the normal average for this time of year. Yet the locals believed there was a simple solution to the crisis, as the banner slung across the bridge made plain: “Stop the Flooding – Dredge the Rivers!” They claim the Parrett is operating at less than full capacity because the Environment Agency has allowed it to silt up; they say it used to be dredged regularly and was wider and deeper, so that it flowed more freely even when swelled by winter rains.

The current orthodoxy maintains that “canalising” rivers and encouraging them to flow faster and straighter, as we did in the postwar years, only encourages more flooding downstream; it is considered more effective to trap water in the hills and allow rivers to braid and meander in a more natural way, but the people here do not agree. They acknowledge that the Levels have always flooded. In the winter of 1872-73, 107 square miles of land lay under water for six months, and there have been other occasions in living memory when the rivers have burst their banks. Dredging would not prevent flooding altogether, they say, but it would help: the water would not come up so high or stay up so long.

One local farmer, Julian Temperley, said that the Parrett in Bridgwater was “ten feet below its banks, while five miles upstream it was overflowing”. Temperley was particularly concerned about his 98-year-old father, who lives in Thorney House, a Georgian mansion in the village of Thorney, eight miles upstream from Burrowbridge and a mile from its celebrated neighbour Muchelney. The Anglo-Saxon suffix “ey” means “island”, and many of the villages on the Levels were built on the high ground that remained dry all year round. For the past six weeks, Muchelney has been an island again, but its houses have not flooded. Thorney’s have.

When I visited Thorney in early January, a week after the waters rose for the first time, the high street had become a lagoon and the villagers had resorted to getting about by canoe. I met two of them at the curve in the road where the water began. The kerb had become an impromptu pontoon. One of them paddled me down the high street, past the empty, flooded houses that were mirrored in the stream. The water was dark and cold, thickened with grass and filled with apples – the Parrett had swept through an orchard when it burst its banks. There were no lights on, but the steady hum of pumps confirmed that people had not abandoned their homes.

The pumps were a temporary measure: the householders were trying to keep the water levels down until the officials of the Environment Agency turned on its much larger pumps. Residents of the Levels like to remind visitors that many parts of London, including the “Island of Thorns” that became Westminster, would have flooded many times this winter if it wasn’t for the Thames Barrier, which has been closed 28 times. But even the title of the Environment Agency’s chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury, strengthens the perception that it is composed of urban sophisticates with a fondness for expensive Land Rovers and no sense of the realities of rural life. They also point to a conflict in the Environment Agency’s role – does it regard rivers as waterways, or habitats? Is it helping wildlife, or people? When I walked in to the King Alfred pub, which overlooks the swollen Parrett in Burrowbridge, the drinkers gathered at the bar were complaining that the EA had found £31m for a nature reserve on the coast but couldn’t find £5m to drain the river. The same complaint has been heard in pubs and houses throughout Somerset in the past six weeks.

The situation on the Levels has become so extreme that extra EA staff have been brought in from other parts of the country. They do not seem to attract the same resentment as the management. I was walking along the edge of the Parrett with a farmer one afternoon when we met an EA worker who attempted to pre-empt the anticipated abuse by saying he lived near Alton Towers, as if no one could pick a fight with someone who claimed a tangential connection with a funfair. Further downstream, another man from the Midlands was stationed by one of the many pumps that are draining water from the moors. He said he was there only to stop people stealing diesel, and offered a conciliatory assessment of the river flowing past in the dusk. “That’s just a big drain,” he said, gesturing at the Parrett.

*

The risk of flooding from the rivers is compounded by the threat from the sea: 2,000 people were said to have drowned in the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, when the waters reached the foot of Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles inland. On 26 November 1703, the sea defences were breached in West Huntspill, near Burnham-on-Sea, close to where the Parrett enters the Bristol Channel: “… there was Four or Five small vessels drove a-shoar which remain there still, and ’tis supposed cannot be got off,” said one of the eyewitness reports that Daniel Defoe collected in The Storm, his brilliant account of the events of that night; “and in the same Parish, the Tide broke in Breast high; but all the People escap’d only one Woman, who was drowned.”

At West Huntspill the sea defences held firm this winter but in other parts of the country they were severely tested. The storm surge that travelled down the east coast of England on the night of 5-6 December generated the highest tide since the North Sea flood of 31 January 1953, in which 307 people drowned. Early-warning systems and improved defences prevented a repeat of the catastrophe, but there was still extensive damage: sections of Norfolk’s crumbling cliffs collapsed and thousands of homes were flooded. Boston and Hull were particularly badly affected.

That storm was the first of several that have pounded the coastline and, in some cases, reshaped it: natural features such as the Pom Pom Rock, a stack off Portland Bill, have been destroyed, and man-made structures such as the promenade in Aberystwyth have been damaged. In early January, the waves breached coastal defences in Chiswell, a village on Portland that stands exposed to the Atlantic, and drastically altered the contours of Chesil Beach. When the storms returned this month, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line, which has carried passengers along the south coast since 1847, was severed at Dawlish in Devon, leaving Cornwall cut off from the national rail. Wave-watching suddenly became a national pastime.

*

In the meantime, a month of unprecedented rainfall has caused extensive flooding inland. Over Christmas, towns and villages in the Cotswolds, Berkshire and Kent were flooded, sometimes more than once. When I went to Yalding, near Maidstone, in early January, the people were beginning to recover from a catastrophic flood that struck the village on Christmas Day. This past week it flooded again. There has been flooding in Dorset, Essex and Lambourn Valley. Even Hertfordshire, which has been the driest county this winter, has been affected. The EA estimates that more than 5,000 properties have flooded since December and its defences have protected a further 1.3 million properties. People died, including a seven-year-old boy, apparently overcome by fumes from a pump draining flood water from his house in Chertsey, Surrey – one of many places where the Thames has burst its banks.

On Monday 10 February the EA issued 16 severe flood warnings on the River Thames. Yet the problems had begun much earlier.

One day in early January, I caught the train to Cookham in Berkshire and walked into the village that the artist Stanley Spencer depicted as a kind of Thameside Jerusalem. I was told that the causeway across the flooded moor was the only way in, but I decided to test the claim that the roads were impassable and walked out of town on the A4094. Inevitably, it was raining, and the road was deserted: the only car in sight was one that had been abandoned at the point where the flood water began.

The White Brook had burst its banks and spread out across Widbrook Common in a wide lake: its further reaches were very still but the knee-deep water was flowing fast across a stretch of the road, 100 metres wide, which had become a kind of weir. Halfway across, I met a teenage boy cycling home from school: he was soaked to the waist, his schoolbag a dripping sack, and his back wheel kept slipping sideways in the current yet he kept going. The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather. Last month the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University, which began monitoring daily weather in 1767, recorded a total rainfall that was three times the average for January – it recorded 146.9 millimetres of rain, beating the previous record of 138.7 millimetres set in 1852. This was also the wettest winter month on record, beating December 1914, when 143.3 millimetres fell. The south and the Midlands suffered their wettest January since Met Office records began in 1910.

The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.

The Met Office report also says the sea level along the English Channel has risen by about 12 centimetres in the past hundred years, and that a rise of between 11 centimetres and 16 centimetres “is likely by 2030”, given “the warming we are already committed to”. Most experts acknowledge that we will not be able to defend areas such as the Levels indefinitely: more resources will be expended on defending low-lying cities such as Hull, but in other places a policy of managed retreat is already being put into practice. Medmerry in West Sussex is one example: the Environment Agency has cut a gap in the sea wall and allowed farmland to revert to salt marsh, where the winter floods wasted their destructive force.

Yet there are costs to choosing such “soft defences” over sea walls and other solid structures that brace the UK’s 17,381 kilometres of coastline. According to the National Farmers Union, 58 per cent of England’s most productive farmland lies within a floodplain, so surrendering land to water presents a threat to food production. Lord Smith has said the Environment Agency has to make a choice between protecting “front rooms or farmland” and the Commons select committee on the environment has warned that we may have strayed too far in one direction: as most of the spending on flood defences is allocated to urban areas, a high proportion of the most valuable agricultural land is at risk. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also estimates that 35,000 hectares of high-quality horticultural and arable land will be flooded at least once every three years by the 2020s.

On the Somerset Levels, the novelty of paddling around in canoes has long since worn off, and the long process of cleaning up has not even begun. The government says it is pumping off 2.9 million tonnes of water a day, but in some places the situation is getting worse. In the first week of February, heavy rainfall hit the Levels again and the emergency services finally found a use for the soldiers who had surveyed the drowned landscape from Burrow Mump. On the night of 6 February water levels rose in the village of Moorland, two miles north of Burrowbridge on the west bank of the Parrett, and the marines of 40 Commando were sent in to evacuate the residents.

David Cameron arrived on the Somerset Levels the next day – no doubt he appreciated the photographs of the marines at work and the muscular urgency they conveyed. He gave in to the local people’s most insistent demand, saying that dredging would begin as soon as possible, and reinforcing the view that the remote, incompetent bureaucrats of the Environment Agency were to blame for the crisis on the Levels. The political name-calling had begun, as the storm factory over the North Atlantic prepared to send another bout of the winter’s unprecedented weather our way.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.