Leaders: We must not skimp on flood defences

In Dumfries a man wades through the water as the River Nith bursts its banks. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
In Dumfries a man wades through the water as the River Nith bursts its banks. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
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Sensible, well-considered plans are needed to prevent further distress and hardship for homeowners and businesses

Few issues have more exposed the disconnect between government and country than official responses to the exceptional levels of rainfall and flooding that have brought misery to thousands of homeowners.

First there is the retreat behind references to climate change and “unexpected scenarios”. Then there are the on-camera ministerial visits and cataracts of statistics on sandbags filled and water pumps activated. Finally there come earnest pledges of millions of pounds to strengthen flood defences.

On each of these the public has become deeply sceptical. First, the rainfall, though severe is not without precedent. Official statistics – and local memory – testify to previous horrendous floods. Second, sandbags are a second or third order response while structural flood measures taken so far have clearly proved inadequate.

And third, the pledges of “more money” have a hollow ring coming as they do against greater and more persistent cuts over the years to flood defences and environmental protection. The result is that annual flood and storm damage costs are estimated by the Association of British Insurers at £1.1 billion.

Here in Scotland specifically, SEPA is facing a budget cut of £2.4 million or six per cent in the next financial year, despite 108,000 residential properties in Scotland at a risk of flooding.

Heavy and persistent rain is a persistent feature of Scotland’s climate. It explains why we have more than 30,000 lochs. But we are not helpless in the face of the winter deluge we have just experienced. And there are measures we can take to stop making matters worse and to protect our towns and villages more effectively.

An obvious first step would be to ring-fence our environmental and flood prevention programmes from spending cuts. A second would be more rigorous enforcement of measures to discourage building on flood plains. Despite all too visible warnings since 2011, housing in areas where flooding is likely continues to grow.

Third, adopt a rigorous policy on river dredging, clearly identified as a contributory cause of the severe flooding of the Somerset levels in 2013-14. Dredging removes the silt that builds up at the bottom of rivers and deepens the channel. But the European Water Framework Directive prevents it being carried out. Avoidance of massive damage to our homes and infrastructure must surely take precedence.

Fourth, allow rivers to meander, creating space for natural overspill upstream rather than straightening programmes that tend to move the flood risk downstream. Fifth, promote more tree planting to help upstream land absorb more moisture and help check the flow of ground water into our streams and rivers.

A combination of such programmes would not prevent flooding. But they would go a considerable way to mitigating the damage and distress. And this needs to be overseen by effective government agencies.

We cannot afford to skimp on our flood defences or leave budgets vulnerable to the most short-term and damaging cuts because they are politically “easy to do”. It is a lesson we have now painfully learnt across many parts of the country.

Pollsters need to up their game

Here’s one New Year resolution on which there is urgent need for action: more accurate opinion polls after the forecasting debacle of 2015.

Out of 92 campaign polls, 17 registered a dead heat between the Conservatives and Labour and 42 recorded Labour leads when the election outcome was a seven-point Conservative lead. Surely the pollsters must do better than this.

The findings of the Sturgis report for the British Polling Council set up in the wake of the May election are due later this month and will be eagerly scanned for explanations as to why so many opinion polls missed the mark.

Theories range from the volatile and capricious nature of UK voters to the laziness of traditional Labour supporters to show up on polling day. One outcome that was not in doubt was the SNP triumph – though the scale of the victory stunned even the party itself. Is there a systemic bias in polling methodology? Are the samples really representative? Were the party machines of the Conservatives – and here in Scotland the SNP – more effective in mobilising voters on election day? Or were voters coy about giving away their voting intentions ahead of the vote?

A widely-held theory in previous elections was that voters were too ashamed to admit their intention to vote Conservative. But could this have been said of voters here who handed the SNP a landslide?

One explanation that may figure in the Sturgis findings is that older voters were under-represented in polling samples. They were certainly under-represented in TV election programmes, perhaps because they tend to be less voluble and outspoken in their opinions.

Whatever the reasons, the polling industry needs to take note ahead of the referendum on Britain’s EU membership.