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Flood debate is economical with the facts and figures

Paul Finch
  • 1 Comment

Lies, damn lies and statistics rule the public advice roost, says Paul Finch

It turns out that roughly half of Britain’s smokers will not die of smoking-related diseases, a fact that emerged in the Great Debate about whether you will die early if you drink more than a pint of Guinness a day.

I have often wondered (as a long-time ex-smoker) how it was that during the 20th century – the century of the cigarette – life-expectancy rose significantly. No one has suggested that smoking contributes to longevity, but if they had, would it have been much more dishonest than labelling cigarette packaging with words that imply nicotine is the same as cyanide?

The current debate about flooding is a good example of Yes Minister economy with facts and figures, in the context of strategic lethargy and tactical cock-up. This was symbolised by the Environment Agency’s cynical attempt to mislead the public about the whereabouts of it chairman, Philip Dilley, during the flooding of the North – a ploy that has resulted in his resignation.

I have some sympathy for Dilley, even though he was complicit in being economical with the truth. He was criticised by the media and some megaphone MPs almost as if he were personally responsible for what used to be called Acts of God. For certain carbon zealots, these acts are welcome proof that all they have been saying about climate change is true, and that the punishment now upon us is of our own making, not God’s. No doubt they will soon be blaming volcanic eruptions on Mr Osborne’s environmental policies.

The Dutch would immediately start building a second Thames Barrier

A serious analysis of our problems with water would start by switching attention from the current administration of the Environment Agency to the creation of policies that have proved wanting. I am waiting to hear an interview with Chris Smith, chair of the agency for many years, and at least partly responsible for the culture of economy with statistics about the basis for the agency’s calculations of what to expect.

When the Somerset Levels were shown to have flooded not despite the Environment Agency’s efforts, but partly because of them, there ought to have been a thoroughgoing national review of both the agency and our national strategy towards water in all its many aspects, not just flood ‘management’ as it is called (‘protection’ being a bit too precise).

Many years ago we nearly launched such an inquiry at the RIBA Building Futures Group – not because of the buildings associated with water, sewerage, storage and so on, but to highlight the need for synthetic thinking that characterises good architectural or design analysis.

The many issues that needed to be addressed included the balance between resisting water, as opposed to embracing and exploiting it; how we could create a national water network to avoid simultaneous glut and dearth in different parts of the country; and not least a proper assessment of the risk of catastrophic events.

To put it at is simplest: why don’t we design our flood strategies on the basis of the risk analysis of the Dutch, who have successfully resisted water for many centuries? Have you ever heard the Environment Agency talking about this? The Dutch would immediately start building a second Thames Barrier. The idea that London is being privileged at the expense of the North is a joke.

That is why Foster & Partners’ national infrastructure plan, which includes a new national airport in the Thames Estuary (NB it is not just an airport proposal), also includes a new Thames barrier. One reason for that is Norman Foster’s personal concern, having consulted all the relevant authorities, about the increasing incidence of catastrophic natural events. We have been warned.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • I hadn't realised that London is needing a new flood barrier, but there might be a great opportunity here to help those boroughs that are facing increasing public criticism of the fashion for digging massive basements under houses.
    How about legislation (preferably retrospective) to ensure that all such basements can act as flood containment structures in time of need?
    Should the Thames start to lap into a street, the basement capacity could make all the difference to the degree of flooding.
    Damage to basements would be minimised if they were were designed with robust materials and finishes (and not for underground living or sleeping accommodation) so that they could be easily pumped out and cleaned.
    Not so fanciful, when you consider that this dual use of basement space is already being promoted by the Dutch - and anyone in London creating an elaborate basement beneath their house is most unlikely to be able to plead poverty.

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