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We need collective action to protect from rising sea levels

Paul Finch

Even while we take action to reduce carbon emissions, we will have to live with the consequences of global behaviour, writes Paul Finch

The recent floods, and the increasing incidence of ‘catastrophic’ events, are a reminder that, even while we take action to reduce carbon emissions over the next few decades, we will still have to deal with the consequences so far. Moreover, however virtuous we may be in the UK, we will have to live with the consequences of global behaviour over which we will have little or no control.

As noted here, and in the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign, endless imposition of ever-tougher controls on new construction does nothing to address existing stock. This is especially true of housing, where the bulk of 25 million properties do not conform to today’s energy regulations.

Unfortunately, as Paul Morrell pointed out during his time as government ‘construction czar’ (a post that no longer exists, politicians clearly being expert in this matter), the idea that we can do very much about this is fanciful. A serious retrofit programme addressing even the worst 20 per cent would require a construction capacity massively in excess of what is available or likely.

What is required is ‘virtuous’ energy. The attacks on nuclear power over the years have not been helpful, though I notice that importing nuclear-generated electricity from France does not generate the same opprobrium. Optimists believe that alternative fuel sources, particularly wind power, are the answer and they may be right, but for the foreseeable future there will be a problem. 

My view is that companies like BP are likely to develop solutions in this field, because they have a vested interest in doing so, and they should be encouraged, rather than reviled. They are, after all, in the provision-of-energy business: oil is a means to an end. (If only Cunard had realised in the 1930s that it was in the transatlantic crossing business, not the liner business, it might have become British Airways.)

When it comes to problems associated with water, we are in different territory. There is little anyone in the UK can do personally to make much difference. This is territory for collective action, from local authorities to nation states. 

It has been a relief to see more media coverage of what Dutch engineers do to keep The Netherlands safe from flooding

It has been a relief to see more media coverage of what Dutch engineers do to keep The Netherlands safe from annual flooding, despite so much of the country lying below sea level, and to contemplate some of the mega-ideas to protect northern Europe from rising sea-levels on an unprecedented scale.

Linking barriers between countries sounds like a pipe-dream, but if anyone can do it, the Dutch can. Perhaps someone will brush down that idea of creating a new settlement on the Dogger Bank, with built-in capacity to cope with rising water. It all sounds unlikely, but then so did the Channel Tunnel. Perhaps Boris should turn his attentions to dams, starting with an additional Thames Barrier. 

Shutterstock 1152901721

Shutterstock 1152901721

Source: Shutterstock

Delta Works sea defence barriers in The Netherlands

Tradition needs criticism

In the days when I chaired the CABE design review, we were more than happy to include architects like Robert Adam and Demetri Porphyrios as panellists. Both were fair-minded, able to acknowledge skilful design even in relation to architecture they themselves would never have produced.

I wonder what a Traditional Architecture Group panel would have made of Quinlan Terry’s Royal Hospital building, set alongside Wren and Soane. The criticism of it by the late-lamented Giles Worsley, a Classicist, was devastating. (As was Gavin Stamp’s attack on Quinlan Terry’s work at Downing College Cambridge.) 

In 2012, as deputy chair of the Design Council, I stated that it was a good thing Prince Charles had nothing to do with the London Olympics. The Traditional Architecture Group demanded that I be sacked. On that occasion, Francis Terry (son of Quinlan) defended me. They’re not all bad!


Readers' comments (8)

  • Surely, if the Traditional Architecture Group get uppity, then - in the interests of balance - there needs to be a Modernist Architecture Group panel - and let battle commence.

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  • That's the problem: we don't need an apartheid design review system, just good, fair-minded reviewers.

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  • The Dutch coastline is only roughly 451km long. The UKs’ coastline is roughly 12,429km, for a land mass of 243,610 km2 and a coast/area ratio of 51.4 m/km2. Relative to the length of its coastline the UK has a low population at 5.2 people/m. Ordnance survey however calculates UK’s main island at 17,820 km and when the larger islands are added, this rises to 31,368 km from which may be derived an upper coast/area ratio of 129.6 m/km2. Unbeknown to most UK also has more land currently below sea level than the Netherlands, but it is less populated (and most of it was reclaimed by Dutch engineers).
    The UK faces significant and unique challenges with a coastline that is proportionately high relative to its land area and with a comparatively low density of people relative to coastal length. It also has very low skills, governance and resource capacity focused upon the issue raised in the article - the question might be where are the architects engaged with the need for this key resilience infrastructure.

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  • Consulting the Dutch, who In their day created the Fens, would be a start.

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  • We do that all the time, but given the capacity issues going forward its an inadequate response to the needs and low level of engagement here

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  • We don't seem to be consulting on anything very significant. Perhaps the RIBA could invite the Netherlands' Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Henk Ovink, to speak about our challenges. He has ambassadorial status, unlike anyone dealing with water in the UK.

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  • I am very touched you remember that, I made myself quite unpopular with a few classicists at the time. Now I am chairman of the Traditional Architecture Group hopefully things will be a little different, less aggressive and more nuanced. I like diversity in architecture - good modernism is certainly far better than bad classicism.

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  • Agreed -- and of course vice versa!

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