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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.