Place names matter in Britain, for they encode unexpected connections. When I arrived in the Somerset village of Thorney in January 2014, to find it under four feet of water, I was fascinated by the way its name tied it to the place that many of its inhabitants blamed for the floods that had engulfed their homes.
Westminster – the seat of government and the home of the Environment Agency, the quasi-independent body responsible for managing flooding – was originally called Thorney, for like Thorney, Somerset, it began life as an island in the marshy fringes of a river.
I thought of Thorney, Somerset and Thorney, Westminster as twin towns of a kind, for one was subject to decisions made in the other – though by the time the winter was over, the inhabitants of the village and its neighbours would reverse the pattern, by forcing those at the centre to accept their perception of the causes of the flood.
There were other resentments directed at the other Thorney: people were tired of being told by Londoners that they shouldn’t live on flood plains, since London is on a flood plain as well. Yet even the Thames Barrier – which is deployed with increasing regularity to protect central London – cannot stop the Thames bursting its banks upstream, and the residents of places like Thorney were angry that nothing much was done until Berkshire and Surrey had flooded.
Most people recognised that living beside water carries risks – some did not regret their choice even after they had been flooded. Yet many saw floods as a man-made disaster, rather than a natural one, caused by the neglect or mismanagement of the office-bound bureaucrats who rarely visit the places they oversee.
In the Somerset Levels, they believed that the rivers that drift sluggishly towards the sea had been further slowed by the Environment Agency’s failure to dredge them. That wasn’t an accident: the contemporary consensus maintains it is better to let rivers braid and meander in the way they used to, and to plant trees and create natural dams to trap water high up the catchment, than to rush the water downstream to flood other places.
Yet the anger in the Levels became too intense to ignore. In February 2014, then communities secretary Eric Pickles apologised for listening to the “experts” at the Environment Agency, in a remark that anticipated the tenor of the 2016 Brexit referendum debate, and shortly afterwards, the government said the rivers would be dredged after all. Whether their analysis was right or not, the residents of the Levels had won a significant victory.
In other places, people felt that local knowledge was ignored, or their interests sacrificed to those of wealthy landowners. In the Calder Valley, Yorkshire, people believed that moorland burning on a grouse shooting estate above Hebden Bridge aggravated the floods that have struck their towns six times in the last 20 years – a case vividly made in Rain, Mary and Bryan Talbot’s graphic novel, which was written between the flood in Hebden Bridge on Boxing Day 2015, and the one on 9 February this year.
Planning decisions are frequently criticised as well: more than 11,000 houses are planned in areas of high flood risk in the seven regions of England hit by storms Ciara and Dennis in the last three weeks, and the Environment Agency has told developers to think carefully about where they build. Yet even places that were traditionally regarded as safe may not be so anymore: the outskirts of the Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury often flood in the winter, but its famous abbey is usually beyond the water’s reach.
“The monks knew where to build,” the vicar of Tewkesbury said to me when I visited the town during one of its regular winter floods. Yet the Abbey’s location did not help it on Sunday 22 July 2007, when it flooded for the second time in its 900-year history. The calculations are constantly changing.
Besides, resisting the pressure on areas of the south-east will not be easy: nearly half the new jobs created in England in the last decade were in London and the south-east, though the region is only home to a third of the population, the think-tank IPPR North recently established.
Danny Kruger, the Conservative MP for Devizes, wrote last week in the New Statesman that Boris Johnson’s government intended to “deepen our democracy by the empowerment of places… so that success doesn’t always look like getting to London and never going back”.
Reducing the frequency and destructiveness of flooding would be the ultimate proof of their success, for it will require not only the revival of marginal places to lessen the pull of the south-east, but the distribution of funds for defences – and the willingness to let local people participate in their design.
Edward Platt’s The Great Flood: Travels Through a Sodden Landscape is published by Picador
This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10