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

2003 flood of Somerset Levels
The Somerset Levels at the height of flooding in 2003. (Photo by Emma Stilling © Copyright Bill Stilling and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence )

The British Isles have been experiencing the wettest winter since records first become available in the 1760s. Parts of the country have received something like 200 percent of the average winter rainfall. There is no obvious let-up in the storm systems swinging across the North Atlantic. These simultaneously pile sea water onto coastal communities, as the gales drive tidal surges, and deposit rain water on the sodden countryside of southwest England. It is hardly surprising that there has been widespread flooding with large areas having been under water for more than four weeks. The flooding, however, has been largely confined to farmland, although farm buildings and small villages have been collateral victims. Flood defences have successfully protected many of the urban areas that used to be submerged in even quite ordinary years of rainfall.

One of the areas worst affected is known as the Somerset Levels, about 250 square miles (650 km2) of low-lying land just south of Bristol. Much of this area is below sea-level, even before the sea began to rise as a consequence of climate change. People have been draining this land for at least a thousand years. Over that period, it has also been subject to occasional catastrophic floods, as in 1607 and 1872-3. The villages sit on small rises in the ground that would, historically, have been islands throughout most winters. Rivers and drainage channels are above the level of the land around them, carrying run-off from the surrounding hills. When they reach the Levels themselves, though, water has to be pumped up into them. In short, once the Levels fill with water, this is very difficult to get rid of. The run-off carries silt which progressively reduces the capacity of the waterways. Traditionally the waterways have been dredged every 10 years or so to deal with this.

In the last 20 years or so, there has, however, been a growing global consensus among water systems professionals that routine dredging is pointless. It may even increase flood risks by bringing water off the hills more quickly. The current scientific and engineering view is that the way forward is to focus on upstream measures that slow run-off. This includes measures like afforestation, the restoration of meanders and bogland, and restrictions on the creation of hard surfaces in new housing or commercial developments. At coastal margins, as in the Levels, salt marshes are also being reinstated. Big engineering solutions are seen to be costly and ineffective. This professional view has become embedded in environmental agency practice, although it is often difficult to implement because of conflicts with agricultural land-use policies and demands for deregulation by farming and development lobbies. Nevertheless, it has formed a principled basis for action by UK environmental agencies.

In the Somerset Levels, the results this winter have been a personal tragedy for many people, although there have been no fatalities. The British media have been full of demands that something be done, accompanied by much criticism of the perceived failures of government and environmental agencies. In the end, politics have trumped science. The minister currently responsible for the flood emergency has apologized to the displaced farmers and villagers for not funding a dredging programme they had demanded. It was, he said, a mistake for politicians to have listened to experts rather than to popular voices.

In expressing this opinion, the minister is echoing a conventional wisdom that has been around in science and technology studies since Brian Wynne’s 1992 work on Cumbrian sheep farmers and the tracing of radioactive contamination following the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Wynne argued that the farmers’ knowledge of the terrain gave them a better understanding of the location of risks than the blanket approach used by the scientists who were seeking to decide where sheep could safely be grazed. However, this conclusion has been increasingly questioned as a generalization by other social scientists.

The Somerset case is a nice example, where the local knowledge is very much downstream and the problem is mainly upstream and, to some extent, out at sea. Dredging is an expensive patch, which damages ecosystems and offers, at best, an uncertain benefit. It is, however, highly visible and looks like an obvious solution. For a beleaguered government, with a minister known for populist rhetoric, meeting this demand and blaming woolly-hatted environmental scientists looks like a quick win. However, it obscures the need for a proper debate about the politics and economics, as well as the science of the decision.

In effect, the government is conceding to the resident population the right to an indefinite subsidy funded by taxation on the remainder of the population to support ineffective interventions to preserve a small number of villages and farms. Clearly, this is a cherished way of life for those who enjoy it and the distress caused by the flooding is something with which we can all sympathise at a human level. However, there are other questions to be asked.

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?

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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