Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, July 24, 2007

AS a jobbing reporter on regional papers I have numbed my backside for more hours than I care to remember on the press benches of local councils.
Planning committees were often more arduous than most, as one innocuous application after another was examined, rarely exciting hot debate and even more rarely troubling my shorthand skills.
But I do remember one phrase that began to catch my eye on officers’ reports to the extent that I was shaken from my habitual sullen indolence to actually do a story.
That phrase was a short statement which said: “This development is being built on a flood plain.”
Hmmm, I thought, I’m no expert, but doesn’t that sort of imply that occasionally this will, kind of, flood?
Yes, said those who I spoke to, complimenting me on my hawk-eyed watchfulness of planning matters and incisive analysis of their implications (ok, made that bit up.) And what is more if you build on a flood plain, you not only risk floods to tha development itself, but you store up problems for other areas too.
Because if you stick a load of concrete and tarmac on a flood plain, rainwater that would otherwise have sate there and soaked into the ground has to go somewhere else, and it will go wherever gravity takes it – and that might mean into the next-door housing estate.
We have been building on flood plains for years, well, since they founded London in Roman times at the very least. But at least when the Romans built they didn’t seal the ground so thoroughly that they created great tsunamis of flood water that washed everyone from house and home.
Now we have spent decades building on flood plains and with the recent scenes across the country we are reaping the consequences.
It’s no good people demanding why weren’t they warned and why weren’t the defences in place. Firstly, the Met Office were warning us on virtually every bulletin last week, but people have this blind optimism that it won’t happen to them, right up until they see their sofa floating out of their lounge window.
Secondly, what exactly do you expect the government to do? They could evacuate people to safety – which they have. Feed them and keep them warm – which they have. Mobilise the Army to help – which they have.
When a river breaks its banks there is not an awful lot you can do to stop it. Sure you can put flood barriers up and hope they don’t get overtopped, but that just shifts the problem downstream to another town or village. It might break its banks into an open flood plain, but then you’ve got to hope you’ve got one handy that you haven’t built on, see above.
So while I’m all for blaming government when they deserve it, I’m disinclined to stick it to them now.
Especially as the BBC seems to believe the flooding in the West Country this weekend is tantamount to the end of civilisation, whereas when the North was deluged a few weeks ago it was all but ignored.
On Sunday night we had Kate Silverton in a distinctly damp-looking hairdo, intoning grimly about the floods in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Yesterday morning the Beeb had even set the disaster to music with a plinking piano soundtrack backing slo-mo scenes of devastation.
A couple of weeks ago the city of Hull was laid waste by the rain and did we hear a peep from the BBC? Perhaps they think stoic Northerners can take it better than southern-softy executives who’ve got grand homes in the South West. And they’re probably right.
But here’s a tip if you want to avoid flooding in the future. If on your survey it says the house you want to buy is on a flood plain, don’t buy it. If it’s by a river, don’t buy it. Go onto the environment agency website and use their interactive flood maps to check the level of the last flood – if your house was under water, don’t buy it.
We’ve had rain like this before. But in the last 20 years or so we’ve overgrazed the uplands, so they can’t hold water, and we’ve over-developed the lowlands so they can’t cope with the run-off.
So when we get wet, we’ve only got ourselves, not government, to blame.

THE death of North Wales airman Peter McFerran serves to underline the need to extract ourselves from the country as soon as possible.
There is a cruel irony to the fact, as revealed by his father, that he had thought long and hard about joining the RAF because of his doubts about the war in Iraq.
Once in however, like any good member of our forces, he went where he was ordered and paid for that service to his country with his life.
Our political leaders continue to insist that, having got Iraq into this mess, we ought to get them out of it. But that should not be a blank cheque to be signed with the blood of our sons and daughters they send out there.
The grieving family of Peter McFerran deserve to know that others will not share their fate and that it is time to bring the boys, and girls, back home.

THE schools inspectors have conducted their dawn, well, 9.30am, raid on my son’s playgroup.
They found what we knew was there, a well-run group catering to a lively group of very happy children who learn a lot through various play activities.
It’s well-supported by parents and has good links with the school where the children move on to once they’re four.
But, Ofsted being Ofsted, and I can only hope Wales’s Estyn doesn’t share this ethos, they had to find something to constructively criticise.
And the glaring absence the inspector had found?
No laptop.
Yes, the absence of the white heat of technology diverting them from healthy play into the nightmare of video games was a cause for concern.
My son is four next month. The only laptop he is interested in is the lap of his mum or dad when he gets his bedtime story.
When I started work it was hammering away at a sit-up-and-beg typewriter with carbon paper and elderly gents in green eyeshades picking my copy apart. Since then computers have come to dominate my work and my life and rarely have I felt each innovation bring any great benefit.
There will be plenty of time for my son to explore the good and the bad of computers. Now I just want him, and all other children of his age, to play.

No comments: