Crazy paving causes flood woes

Will it take a British New Orleans before we take flooding planning seriously?

It's starting to seem normal. Storms since Friday, accompanied by frighteningly heavy showers across the UK, have caused floods, havoc and tragedy.

Workers trapped in a factory in the West Midlands; the Gardener's Question Time summer garden party almost ruined by rain 'like stair-rods'; the death of a soldier swept away by a swollen river in Yorkshire; schools closed in Sheffield; and thousands of homes ruined in towns and villages from Wales to Norfolk. A century ago, these would have been called 'the big floods' for years to come but the sad fact is we'll probably see the same thing happen again before Christmas.

With good timing, inadequate investment in flood defences was highlighted in a report on Friday by the National Audit Office. They found that our defences – maintained by the Environment Agency – were in peak condition in less than half of high-risk areas, and that protection is often in the wrong place, defending farmland rather than centres of population.

And it isn't just the building of barriers to rising sea levels that is a problem. Other, seemingly harmless, land-use decisions can also have serious consequences in helping make floods part of our daily lives.

The trend to pave over front-gardens in London has led to a dramatic loss of surfaces that absorb water from heavy showers. The permeable land area lost recently is 22 times the size of Hyde Park, according to the London Assembly's Environment Committee's 'Crazy Paving' report in 2005.

Each decision to have a parking space rather than a front lawn has combined to increase the city’s vulnerability to flash-flooding several times. According to the Stern Review last year, “Each individual decision may be rational, but in aggregate this loss of permeable land will leave a legacy for future generations living in London.”

The risk of more city floods can only increase as climate change takes hold properly in the future. A month's worth of rain in 24 hours may never be 'normal' but we can expect it to be a regular occurrence.

In this new climate, plans to build homes on flood plains start to look like madness. With forty percent of homes in the South of England at serious risk of flooding already, building hundreds of thousands of new homes in the Thames Gateway (its name a bit of a giveaway as to its proximity to rising waters) makes no sense at all. The Stern Review recommended limiting construction on flood plains as a way of minimising the cost of climate change, but the government and London planners are intent on ignoring this advice.

Acknowledging its flood-defence failures to date, the Environment Agency is now looking for £150 million in extra funding from this year's comprehensive spending review. I hope they get this and more; a recent study in Scotland found that the psychological impact of losing treasured belongings in floods can take years to get over, lasting long after financial losses have been forgotten.

Despite the certainty of climate change in the future, property damage now is not inevitable. The great front garden tragedy in London could have easily been avoided with a small change in local planning guidelines, and was highlighted by the Greens in London very early on.

Similarly we've opposed the Thames Gateway approach to providing housing for London's growing population, pointing out that a combination of filling empty homes and building on brownfield sites can increase the supply of homes without pushing people into places that will be regularly under water within a decade or two.

The government needs a more coherent and comprehensive attitude to flood planning. If they fail, we could easily end up with large numbers of people unable to get household insurance, unable to sell their houses and condemned to a slow decline into poverty and slum housing conditions.

Arguably, government's 'job number one' is to plan for and provide secure homes for those who elect them. Things like flood risks are simple enough problems to identify, and the consequences of failure potentially so appalling, that the current culture of neglect is inexcusable. Will it take a much bigger tragedy, a British New Orleans, to sort this out?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.