Floods and tidal surges: part of life in the British Isles

The worst winter storms to hit the UK for 20 years have been nothing if not comprehensive.


6 January 2014: Waves pound the sea wall by the lighthouse in Porthcawl, South Wales. Photo: Rex.

The day after the tidal surge subsided, on 6 December, I drove out to Jaywick, on the Essex coast. This plotland community was established near Clacton-on-Sea in the 1930s as a holiday resort for Londoners. It is now said to be the most deprived place in England. The sea is its most treasured amenity, but occasionally it becomes a threat – 37 people drowned in Jaywick on the night of 31 January 1953, when the North Sea broke though coastal defences along the east coast, and many of its residents were evacuated on 5 December 2013, when the highest “tidal surge” in 60 years was predicted.

I met a woman on the beach who told me that she had slept rough with her dog in Clacton-on-Sea because the shelter was full. Her son had stayed in Jaywick. Other people had walked back in the middle of the night. Two lads sharing an early-morning spliff on the seafront showed me how high the water had come.

Improved flood defences and warning systems ensured there was no repeat of the catastrophe of 1953: there was no loss of life on the east coast and less damage to property than had been feared. Yet not everywhere escaped unscathed: houses from Hull to Essex were flooded, and the Lincolnshire town of Boston found itself knee-deep in water when a tidal inlet called the Haven burst its banks. The chalk mark drawn on the back wall of St Botolph’s Church, or “the Stump”, as it is known, thanks to the tall tower that rises above the flat fenland landscape, suggests that the water was a metre higher than it had been in 1953.

Boston has always been oriented towards Europe, and beyond: it is the place from which religious dissidents first attempted to escape England for a new life of religious freedom, and today it claims a higher proportion of immigrants than any other town in the country. When I arrived several days after the flood and walked along Irby Street, which runs beside – and beneath – the Haven, there were cars with Czech number plates parked among the damp carpets and rotting furniture piled on the pavements. One woman told me she had been in Prague when the water flowed through her house, leaving an ankle-deep tidemark on the walls. The water took its habitually capricious course: it bypassed some houses entirely, but struck others with such force that it blew in their windows and threw cookers around as if they were made of polystyrene.

The residents of Boston had been told to expect an even higher tide on New Year’s Day, but when the storms resumed, they struck the other coast and travelled in the opposite direction, from Cornwall to Scotland: the worst winter storms to hit the UK, for 20 years have been nothing if not comprehensive.

Met Office statistics confirm the anecdotal evidence: it was the stormiest December in records dating back to 1969, and one of the windiest months in Britain since January 1993. In Scotland, it was the wettest month since records began in 1910. No one knows if the storms are caused by climate change or not: the Met Office will say only that it expects to see extreme weather events more frequently as the planet warms. More immediate causes have also been cited, from the “quasi-biennial oscillation”, a cycle of fast-moving winds above the Equator, to the effects of the US’s arctic freeze.

The political arguments over the causes of the storms have begun: the government says more than a million homes have been protected since the start of December, but critics say that spending on flood defences is being cut – in real terms it will fall from £646m in 2010-2011 to £546m in 2015-2016. The Prime Minister acknowledged the political significance of flooded homes when he visited the Kent town of Yalding on 27 December.

One of the residents of the Little Venice Country Park and Marina, which stands on the edge of town, told me that they were used to four or five feet of water, but they were not prepared for the ten-foot wave that swept through the park. “It was the scariest thing I have ever seen,” he said. When I visited Little Venice on 7 January, the Environment Agency was considering evacuating the park for a third time, while in Westminster, the debate about the national response to the storms was getting under way: Maria Eagle dismissed the Prime Minister’s visit to Yalding as a “stunt” but the residents of Little Venice were not inclined to join in the recriminations. They did not even blame the Environment Agency for opening the Leigh Barrier upstream and releasing the tidal wave that set their homes adrift. “It was a case of ‘had to’,” one said. “It’s the same all over the country: it’s just exceptional weather.”

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.