An open letter in response to Roger Harrabin, Professor Paul Bates and Professor Rob Nicholls

Somerset Flood spending driven by politics say experts.

An open letter in response to Roger Harrabin, Professor Paul Bates and Professor Rob Nicholls

The original article can be found at

The report you produced on the hydrology of the flooding in Somerset causes serious concern but not because of what you have to say about hydrology. Your work presented with the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, fundamentally misunderstands the implicit contract between citizen and State. You are concerned that the political landscape in Somerset with all its marginal seats, has resulted in the government spending disproportionately on flood protection for the people of the Levels. That the spend is disproportionate is not in dispute. However the BBC report by Roger Harrabin that you contributed towards might have been more informed and interesting if you had expressed some greater curiosity as to how that situation had come about.

It is I think beyond dispute that the Somerset Levels are a man-made landscape, going back to around 1150 when monks from Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney Abbeys started draining the land. That landscape and the rhynes and the rivers within it, are all man made watercourses that have been managed by variously monks and abbots, landowners and finally the State in the near 9 centuries since.

People who have settled on the Levels and started living there, particularly in the last 100 years, have done so in the reasonable expectation that the State will continue to maintain the water courses thereby allowing them to live farm and go about their business in safety. The State has created an expectation of protection and safety. In return for that protection the population pays its taxes, some of which are paid for work to protect the river systems.

Unlike many areas of the country, people who live on the Levels know that without regular flood protection and river maintenance the land is unsustainable. This is an important point.

At no point, prior to 2012 has the State made any announcement to the people in the Levels that it intended to stop protecting them. Yet that is exactly what the State did, it allowed the water courses and the river management system to get into a state of disrepair close to collapse. People went about their lives and work believing they were being protected, because the body with the duty to protect them had not told them that it was not protecting them any longer.

You may or may not be aware that before the 2012 floods, no-one in the Levels really appreciated that the Environment Agency (EA) had sold all its dredging equipment 20 years earlier. No-one (actually I should say “very few” for the sake of accuracy) realised the extent to which the EA were failing to manage the rivers. It was assumed that it must be under control and that the EA had hydrology data that suggested the rivers could be well managed with less dredging. Those assumptions were of course wrong.

But the duty of explanation, especially when there is a 180° about turn in policy, lies with the State. The citizen cannot reasonably be expected to guess when the State has a fundamental change of policy if the State fails to inform them. Crucially the State failed in its duty to inform people that the level of protection they were receiving had changed. And it failed in that duty for 20 years.

No-one in the Levels thinks that the land does not flood. It is perfectly possibly to have a reasoned conversation about abandoning the land and compensating those for what they would thereby lose. Compensation is necessary because they have taken residence and established businesses and farms there in the reasonable expectation that the State would continue to protect them. Again it goes to the heart of the implicit contract between citizen and State – the one thing that the BBC article on your report utterly fails to comprehend.

So it is necessary to reiterate that to date the State has not discussed with anyone on the Levels that that the land is unsustainable. That conversation could take place, but it does not absolve the State from responsibility in the meantime. If that conversation does take place I could not begin to second guess the reaction, I do not presume to speak for what people want. However if the State did want to abandon the land – it could have that conversation. Again whilst this is something that your report mentions, it significantly misrepresents the duties of State and citizen.

It is clear to anyone who saw the news during the course of last winter that the State failed in its responsibility to protect people. But in the 20 years before when it failed to discuss its actions and the consequence those actions would have on the population of the Levels, it broke its implicit contract to protect the people who live there.

That, and only that, is why the spend that you describe as disproportionate, has happened. The State is, if you like, being “prosecuted” for breach of contract with the citizen and the remedy handed down by the “court” is to put things back to how they were.

So yes it is true that the cost of flood defences does not make sense in macro-economic terms. The fact that the State has broken its contract with the citizen is not the fault of the citizen. Your failure to understand the political landscape has unfortunately painted a very distorted report on the background to the failure to protect our landscape.

Andrew Lee, editor The Langport Leveller



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