Joyce McMillan: Think long-term on flood defences

Emergency sandbags are a temporary fix at best, a long-term view is urgently needed on prevention. Picture:
Emergency sandbags are a temporary fix at best, a long-term view is urgently needed on prevention. Picture:
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WITH the SNP set for another term in power, Scotland has a chance to address the issue properly, writes Joyce McMillan

Of all the images of flooding in Scotland that have been highlighted by the media this week, it’s perhaps the sight of the historic Cambus O’ May pedestrian suspension bridge on the River Dee, first struggling to withstand the thundering spate of floodwater, and then battered and bent out of shape after the torrent recedes, that will stay most vividly in the mind – or perhaps the bus overwhelmed by a sudden surge at Dailly in South Ayrshire, floating serenely in what looks like a deep pond, after its driver and passengers were winched to safety by a Royal Navy helicopter.

The first image speaks of the sheer frightening force of the water that has roared through so many towns and villages this week, the second of the shocking speed with which it can rise; and both are silent witnesses to the heroic efforts of prevention and rescue – by all kinds of public agencies, community volunteers and emergency services – which have, as I write, ensured that no-one in Scotland has died as a result of the flooding of the last few days.

And now as the water begins to recede, the call begins both north and south of the Border for the government to “do more”, not only to help those whose homes and businesses have been damaged, but also to ensure that such flooding never happens again.

On both fronts, it’s a perfectly reasonable call: helping those affected by disaster is one of the prime duties of government, and one that not even the present Conservative administration at Westminster would seek to duck. Both David Cameron and his environment minister, Rory Stewart, have been out in their wellingtons this week, promising to spend whatever is necessary; Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and even Prince Charles have been on the same beat in Newton Stewart and Ballater. And those who have failed the welly test – notably England’s Environment Agency boss Philip Dilley, who was caught out holidaying in Barbados – find themselves pilloried for obvious indifference to a disaster that is clearly, at some level, a government responsibility, even if not entirely the government’s fault.

• READ MORE: Environment chief defends holiday during flooding

That, though, is where the consensus ends; for if we all agree that government should be doing something about future flood prevention, there is little agreement about what that something should be. For every voice pleading for higher walls around our rivers, and more immediate and obvious flood defences for the towns and villages affected by the present round of flooding, there is now another arguing that less predictable and more torrential rainfall is a consequence of climate change with which we will have to learn to live, and from which we cannot, at any reasonable cost, entirely protect ourselves.

And beyond that, there are now also many voices pointing out that if higher rainfall is the immediate cause of the flooding we have seen this winter, many aspects of modern land and water management conspire to make it worse, from the paving over of old floodplains for housing or commercial development, to the heavily-subsidised drainage and deforestation of upland areas to accommodate Britain’s rapidly-growing number of sporting estates, popular playgrounds for the new global rich. And if these arguments for a longer-term view of flood prevention have any validity at all, then it’s clear that the demand this issue makes on government goes far beyond finding the money to turn more and more of our rivers into concrete-lined eyesores, running between high walls through our towns and cities; arguably, in any case, such superficial flood prevention measures do nothing but move the problem further downstream.

No, what is being asked of governments is that in the first place they consider basic reform of a system of land subsidy and use that often effectively pays landowners and developers to make flooding more likely – that is, that they confront some of the most powerful and influential vested interests in the country, and some of the more obvious idiocies of the European Union common agricultural policy, in a spat that will make the Scottish Government’s present difficulties over their modest Land Reform measure look like a Balmoral tea party. Then secondly, they are being asked to tackle climate change, in the hope of at least reducing the radical destabilisation of our weather patterns; in other words, to confront not only the cheviot and the stag, as John McGrath’s 7:84 Scotland theatre company once memorably put it, but also the black, black oil, and a whole civilisation still based on the burning of hydrocarbons.

So will they do it? Not likely; indeed, the chances of the UK government pursuing any such path must be close to zero, given the interests of its most influential supporters. It’s worth adding as a footnote, though, that in this as in many other areas, Scotland’s present government – likely to remain in office for a decade to come, and facing little credible opposition – has a rare opportunity, if it can muster the necessary insight and vision, to take a longer view than is normally available to elected politicians, and to move rapidly both to make Scotland into a beacon of renewable energy development, and to initiate changes in land use and management that will help make our landscape of riverside villages, towns and cities much more sustainable, far into the future.

According to at least some expert opinion, Scotland already has a better record in these areas than the rest of the UK; a history of higher building standards and stricter planning rules about development on flood plains, combined with a series of decisions, since devolution in 1999, to maintain our levels of flood prevention spending. Here too, though – as households from Dumfries to Deeside begin the long process of clearing up and recovery – it’s clearly time for government to do more, and to do it better.

And as the New Year dawns, there’s just a glimmer of hope that we might, for once, be able to get that government action right; and to respond not just to the clamour of short-term vested interests, but also to the voice of the future itself, begging us to act with wisdom, foresight, and a genuine feeling for the beautiful land on which we live, before it is finally too late.