Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Somerset on Countryfile ... ... "Floods, Politics and Science: The Case of the Somerset Levels"

The latest edition of Countryfile on BBC 1 took us to Somerset:

The landscape of the Levels

The Somerset Levels have been lived on and managed for thousands of years but it was the Romans who first tamed the wild wetlands for agriculture. When the Romans left, the land was reclaimed by the sea and it wasn’t until much later in the medieval period that the rivers were canalised and land once more reclaimed. Ellie Harrison learns the history of the Levels’ changing landscape and discovers how, with the aid of steam power, the Victorians pumped water off the Levels.

Find out more about the Somerset Levels

Flooding on the Levels 

After the wettest winter on record the Somerset Levels have suffered some of the worst flooding in living memory. The water is receding but it will be a long time before things get back to normal. Matt Baker joins the local fire service checking depth levels on flooded roads before finding out what volunteers have been doing to help those affected. He visits a food bank set up in the local pub and joins a Burrowbridge farmer on his daily commute to feed his evacuated cattle. At the market Matt meets volunteers supporting the farming community by donating silage and bedding for evacuated livestock.

Horsehair weaving


John Craven visits one of only two remaining horsehair weavers in the world. John Boyd Textiles in Castle Cary have been weaving the hard-wearing hair cloth for more than 150 years and still use the patented Victorian looms developed to replace child workers in the 19th Century. John discovers the processes involved in preparing the hair and finds out how versatile a cloth it can be – used for wall coverings, upholstering chairs and even fashion accessories such as handbags and hats.

Find out more about Castle Cary’s horsehair industry

Anaerobic Digestion

Turning waste into electricity seems like the perfect way of creating power, and as such the last few years have seen anaerobic digestion units spring up all over the country. But, as Tom Heap finds out, while some claim AD has become too successful, others are worried we're starting to pull the plug before it has really got off the ground.

BBC One - Countryfile, Somerset

And what of the future of the Somerset Levels?


Tuesday, 18 March 2014 By Paula Lester

An action plan which aims to stop a repeat of the terrible flooding this year in Somerset is being met with mixed reactions

As home owners on the Somerset Levels examine their filthy houses and volunteers get to work cleaning up the monumental mess left behind by the floodwater that has saturated the area since December, the Government has published a £100 million action plan, of which some £22 million has already been raised, designed to prevent a disaster on this scale from happening again.

The 23-page Somerset Levels and Moors Flood Action Plan, which has been put together by the County Council, the Environment Agency and residents, aims to stop flooding occurring in the first place or to reduce the impact more quickly when it does.

Proposed measures in the 20 year plan include a barrage downstream of Bridgwater, raising roads to villages such as Muchelney (which has been marooned for 10 weeks) and the railway line, maintaining a permanent pump and dredging five miles of the Rivers Tone and Parrett in an effort to restore them to the same condition they were in during the 1960s.

The report is of little comfort to some beleaguered locals. ‘Never mind 23 pages, the action plan should be one word long- it starts with d and ends with g and is called dredging,' says apple farmer Julian Temperley, who still has fields under 6ft of water. ‘The people of Somerset are bemused, angry and disillusioned. The plan says five miles of the River Parrett will be dredged, but it needs to be dredged from end to end. Our river is blocked and it's going to stay blocked unless we do something about it. The answer is simple-if you want water to go down the sink, you take the plug out.'

Rebecca Horsington from the local flooding action group adds: ‘The clearup operation is going reasonably well, but it's going to be a long old job and many people will be displaced for a long time. But lots of volunteers are working tirelessly and that does make you feel quite proud.'

Farmers' fury after climate change expert claims Somerset Levels flooding 'should not be made a special case'

By WG_JTaylor | Posted: March 08, 2014

Large parts of Somerset have been crippled by flooding in recent months.

Farmers have reacted angrily after the Government's climate change experts questioned whether it was fair to spend £100 million of taxpayers' money to save the Somerset Levels.

Climate expert Lord Krebs has sent a letter to Environment Minister Owen Paterson saying the Levels should not be made a special case and any plan should be good value for money. Earlier this week the Minister took receipt of an action plan outlining £100 million worth of measures that need to be taken to safeguard the area from future flooding. 

Read the summary of the plan:

The Government has pledged £20 million towards dredging and the clean-up operation, but it is still unclear where the money for major capital projects such as the £30 million barrage on the Parrett will come from.

The Committee on Climate Change warns Mr Paterson that defending the Levels will become "ever more difficult" as sea levels rise by 12cm by 2030 and intense rainfall events become even more common.

Lord Krebs, chairman of the adaptation sub-committee, tells the Minister that the Levels is "a largely engineered wetland landscape" and any public funding should face strict face tests to ensure "value for money is being achieved". "Funding from central Government for flood risk management is limited, and as a result many worthwhile projects have to held back each year," he said. "Whilst the immediate needs of the affected communities will be a priority, it would be unfair in the long-term for the Levels to attract more taxpayer support than similar areas elsewhere. The long-term approach needs to be sustainable and cost-effective. It shouldn't require taxpayer funding to be diverted from other projects that would deliver greater flood risk benefit."

A report from the committee points out that 900 new houses have been built in Sedgemoor in the ten years to 2011 and says farmers have also contributed to the problems by planting fields with maize.

But farmers say it's easy for Lord Krebs to make judgments from his office in the Horse of Lords or Oxford University, and he should visit the Somerset Levels and see the devastation for himself. A spokesman for the National Farmers' Union said: "Yes, we do need have to have a debate about climate change in the longer term, but now is not the time to have it.

"At the moment what we are trying to do is dig people out from a terrible mess caused by 20 years of inaction from governments of both stripes. A mess that was not of their making. It's all very well for Lord Krebs to dish out advice about sea levels from behind a nice dry desk in a nice warm office but is he really going to tell the poor folk on the Somerset Levels that they should not have taxpayers' money spent on them even though none of this is their fault?"

The NFU spokesman said that if the Government wanted value for money they should have seen that it would have been cheaper to have spent money on flood prevention than pay for an expensive pumping and clean-up operation afterwards. "In the longer term we have to look at land management practices, but the Government need to understand that there's no point spoiling the plan for an h'apeth of tar and now is not the time to wade in saying people should be left high and dry," he said.

Lord Krebs praises the Somerset Levels and Moors Task Force for recognising that farming practices, soil conservation, peatlands restoration and making properties more resilient should all play a part in protecting the Levels. But he urged planners to avoid further development in the area until they know that measures such as dredging are working and tells the Government that lessons learned on the Levels could be used elsewhere.

Sharing costs among those who have a role and interest in avoiding future flood damage would bring different interest groups together, he said. "There's a broader question of which bits of managed landscape do we decide to carry on defending and which bits do we say we have to use as natural soft defences for flooding; they are just there to absorb water, " Lord Krebs told The Times. "I'm not saying people should get out of the Somerset Levels because I think it's too early to make that judgment. But... we must ask ourselves how we prepare the country for flooding which the models suggest will become more common. It may well be the case that there are areas too expensive to defend."

But John Osman, the leader of Somerset County Council, challenged Lord Krebs to "come to Burrowbridge and say that to the people who have been cut off for eight weeks".

Bridgwater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger wants the proposed Parrett barrage funded from general taxation but expects a local flood tax to be considered for other measures. "Lord Krebs is wrong," he said. "We have to manage climate change, not give in to it. Since 1995 there has been a moratorium on doing anything other than bird sanctuaries and environmental issues."

The Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change is due to present its first statutory report to Parliament in the summer of 2015.

Responding to the Krebs letter, a Defra spokesperson said: "These proposals were addressed in the Action Plan. The recent weather has had a devastating impact in Somerset. Government is investing £20.5 million to help the community recover and better protect it for the future."

Floods, Politics and Science: The Case of the Somerset Levels

By Robert Dingwall | Published: February 10, 2014

2003 flood of Somerset Levels

The Somerset Levels at the height of flooding in 2003. (Photo by Emma Stilling)

Firstly, there is the ethics of using tax revenues on projects that are not demonstrably efficient or effective. As Murray Rothbard, a libertarian economist rarely read by sociologists, observes, this is the key difference between taxation and extortion. Morally, it is wrong to use taxation to fund projects without a clear public benefit. The science is reasonably clear and the conclusion about the ethics of the political response is inescapable.

Secondly, there is clearly some measure of market failure here. An indefinite public subsidy in the form of dredging and drainage works means that the risks of flooding have not been correctly priced into the value of properties and farmland. As climate change progresses, many other communities globally will have to face the same choice about whether it is more appropriate for governments to manage retreat from environmental challenges than to expend resources in futile resistance. In other, equally flat and low-lying, parts of England, that decision has already been faced: local governments have collaborated with environmental agencies to develop new policies which respond to rising sea levels and storm surges by creating natural buffers and planned withdrawals from existing coastlines. Elsewhere, valuable experience is being gained, despite limited funding, in upland catchment management.

Thirdly, there are questions about the ability of governments and media to address long-term planning issues. There simply is no way in which the Somerset Levels will see out the present century in anything like their present form. Rather than using the present crisis to explain this to local communities, and to promote a dialogue about compensation and relocation, both government and media have demanded an instant fix. This does not bode well for responses to future challenges.

Residents of the Levels argue that they should receive special protection to defend their way of life. Urban dwellers, it is alleged, do not really understand the virtues of rural living. There is a certain irony in that we are currently marking the thirtieth anniversary of the great miners’ strike in the UK, where mining communities made exactly the same demands. For good or ill, the government of the day decided that the level of public subsidy was too great to justify the perpetuation of this industry, its associated communities and their way of life. The questions today are the same and we should not allow them to be obscured by sentimental rhetoric. Regardless of the present austerity, how far is it really justifiable to expend national resources on any sectional interest? If we think that this is appropriate, what does it say about our country and its politics that our first preference seems to be to support the residents of a pleasant part of rural England through interventions that lack any real evidence base?

Floods, Politics and Science: The Case of the Somerset Levels.

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