Flooding in Somerset has a lesson to teach us about our decisions when it comes to living with nature

John Tebbit

As I watched the recent coverage of the flooding in the Somerset Levels and listened to the various points of view on how to deal with it, I was reminded of my early civil engineering days.

Back in the mid eighties when I was a young engineer with Southern Water Authority, we were busy spending millions of pounds of public money on flood defences protecting rough grazing land on the Isle of Grain. Money was coming from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF).

By improving the flood defences from a one in five year standard to a one in 30 year, there would be justification to subsidise the farmers to put in land drainage to turn the grazing land to arable land. Then they could grow wheat that nobody wanted, which MAFF could subsidise via the, then unreformed, Common Agriculture Policy.

The logic was impeccable but quite mad as at the same time we were struggling to get funding for flood protection schemes for urban areas.

However, as a young engineer learning his trade it was fantastic experience. We built mile after mile of defences with massive sluices to drain the water back out after the inevitable flooding did occur.

We really need to have the debate about whether places such as the Somerset Levels should be allowed to flood every few years

We were even learning a bit about environmental measures to protect hedgehogs and ducks. As part of the defences we were building roads and having to put in fences and cattle grids. Apparently cattle grids are deadly for hedgehogs. The little creatures fall into them and can’t get out. A note came round to the site team that we needed to put in hedgehog ramps to allow escape. Monty Python would have been proud of the debates about how many ramps per cattle grid (two so hedgehogs can go either way), whether steel or wood float finish was needed on the ramps (wood for extra grip) and handrails (actually, no).

In addition, we needed to find a way to allow ducks, which would fly in to the marshes for breeding, to then walk back to the sea with their chicks. My suggestion of duck flaps in the sea walls didn’t make it and we ended up building duck ramps.

Coming back to the present day, it seems to me that we really need to have the debate about whether places such as the Somerset Levels should be allowed to flood every few years rather like the North Kent marshes did before we beefed up the defences. Are the Levels to be for agriculture, nature or both?

As a nation we are very good at telling other nations how to integrate wildlife and local people. There are countless programmes with David Attenborough telling us how the locals and elephants now exist in harmony. Usually it is through finding the triple sustainability solution (economic, social and environmental) through dialogue with all parties and an absence of prejudgment. Perhaps we need to check whether our own environmental NGOs and government bodies are following the advice we give to others.

John Tebbit is deputy chief executive of the Construction Products Association