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Meet Andy Batchelor, the man who keeps London dry

Most Londoners have no idea they're being constantly protected by a team of people working round-the-clock to prevent the Thames from flooding.

Late at night on 31 January 1953, a heavy storm erupted in the North Sea. By the early hours of the morning, strong winds combined with low pressure and fast currents had produced a surge that devastated the UK’s east coast. The storm caused damage all over the country – 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes – but it was particularly intense in the Thames. The river was already full to the brim after days of rain, and the extra water pushed into the estuary by the surge broke sea walls and inundated thousands of properties. More than 320 people in the UK died that night, many of them in Essex and the other coastal counties north of the Thames Estuary. It remains one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters.

Andy Batchelor has been working to prevent a similar catastrophe for all of his professional life. The 56-year-old manager of the Thames Barrier began his engineering career in the aftermath of the flood, building embankments in the outer estuary to keep the water out. Though more than half a century has now passed, the 1953 disaster is still shaping the UK’s approach to flood prevention.

When we meet in his office overlooking the south end of the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, Batchelor is keen to point out how much has changed in the 65 years since that terrible night. “What a lot of people don’t appreciate,” he tells me, “is that in 1953 there were no systems. There was no real way of telling local authorities and police groups along the coast that something was coming. They all saw it for the first time separately, and because of the lack of preparation, that’s what added to the loss of life.”

The Thames had flooded before – 14 people drowned in 1928 when the river broke its banks at Millbank in central London, for instance – but it was the 1953 surge that made policymakers think, “We’ve got to do something different,” Batchelor says. Four options were considered: do nothing, move the capital out of London, raise all the walls along the Thames by three metres, or build a flood barrier on the river. It wasn’t until 1972 that the fourth option was written into legislation. By the time Batchelor graduated from Westminster College in London in 1979, the Thames Barrier was under construction. It began operation four years later.

A tall, spare man with a precise manner and mode of expression, Batchelor says that it was always his dream to work at the barrier. As a young engineer, he admired the scale and originality of the structure, which has ten gates spanning the river’s 520-metre width between New Charlton on the south bank and Silvertown on the north.

Batchelor joined the maintenance team at the barrier in 1984 and became its overall manager in 1999. He leads a team of 87 people who work on a variety of day-to-day tasks, from servicing the barrier’s moving parts and forecasting future floods to leading tours for school groups around the site. He feels a great sense of duty to do his job well. Though very self-effacing, he makes it clear during our conversation that much is at stake on whether he closes the barrier or not. The safety of important landmarks and infrastructure – such as the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, several major hospitals and parts of the London Underground, as well as thousands of homes – depends on him. “It’s 375,000 properties, something like £300bn worth.”

His team takes great pride in the job that it does, Batchelor says. At times, he has to call on his colleagues to make sacrifices for their work. In the winter of 2013-14, when there was flooding in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere, the barrier was working hard. The rain was so intense that it closed 50 times in a three-month period, with 20 of the closures on consecutive tides. Staff worked round-the-clock shifts to make this possible. Most Londoners probably had no idea what was going on downriver to keep them safe. As of early January, the barrier has only been closed 181 times since 1983.

When he goes on holiday, Batchelor finds it hard to switch off. He trusts his team absolutely but he tells me that if there was any sign of a flood, he would be on a plane home immediately.

The decision to close the barrier (a process that takes about an hour and a half for all ten gates) is deceptively simple. Batchelor explains it patiently, with what I sense might be his habitual laid-back, logical tone. If A, the amount of rainwater forecast to flow down the Thames, plus B, the height of the next incoming tide, equals more than C, the amount of water the river can contain without flooding, the barrier must be closed. As a result, Batchelor works with a constantly updating bank of computer-generated forecasts. “We can’t stop the rainfall, but we can stop the tide,” he says.

When the barrier was designed in the 1970s, terms such as climate change and global warming “weren’t even in the dictionary”, Batchelor says. It was originally designed to be superseded by other flood defences by 2030, but more recent studies have shown that it is robust enough to remain the Environment Agency’s main point of protection for London until 2070.

As sea levels rise, a new barrier will eventually have to be built further downriver and other flood defences will also have to be improved. Who knows whether Andy Batchelor will be here to oversee those new structures, but for now he remains a vital, if mostly invisible, presence on London’s great river. If he does his job well and keeps the city dry, we barely know he’s there.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.