Oliver Letwin is our local MP here in West Dorset.
I’ve met him a few times, to talk about different environmental issues. He’s friendly, fiercely intelligent; and loves a good argument. I don’t agree with his politics at all, but he has always listened to whatever it is I’ve been advocating and evidently knew what the arguments were.
He’s also extremely gaffe prone (eg this recent revelation about events long past) and consequently has been in the back room as Cabinet Office minister for quite a while, but that is a very influential job. He will now chair the National Flood Resilience Review, which will report in the Summer.
Letwin writes a regular feature in our local paper the Dorset Echo. Most of the time it’s anodyne stuff, but this morning’s piece is quite an eye opener.
During the deluge that hit first the Lake District and then much of the rest of the north of England at the turn of the year, I am sure I was not alone in hoping that this would mark the end of the rain. So much water descended in such a short period that we seemed to have had a whole year’s rainfall by the end of the first week in January.
But, as we all now know, this was considerably too optimistic.
I really can’t remember a time when the water table locally has been so high for so long. Even during the period when the Somerset Levels were submerged for weeks, West Dorset seemed drier than it does at present.
I hope it isn’t tempting fate to say that we haven’t, so far, experienced anything like what has afflicted some parts of the west and the north. And we have also, so far at least, avoided the combination of fluvial, surface water and sea-storm flooding that can prove so damaging for our coastal settlements.
But it has been, and remains a continuing concern.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, some straightforward measures – such as the reconfiguration of the bridge at Charminster – clearly achieved a good deal just through simple engineering (admittedly at considerable cost). And I am delighted to see that engineering projects like the pinning of the land above the tunnel at Beaminster and of much of the coastline at Lyme Regis seem to be doing their work admirably well when faced with prolonged adversity.
But I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the nation is not going to be able to provide itself with sufficient long-term protection on an affordable basis just by undertaking the massive further investment programme of engineering works that is now scheduled.
We are going to need to plan really seriously for a restoration of natural capital to slow down the water cycle by planting trees and making other landscape adjustments to our various water catchments over the next couple of decades. (my bold)
On a point of information, I would say that Winter water tables in Dorset have been higher before eg 2000. But we have just had 193mm of rain in January, so everything is awash. And of course the ever expanding area of Maize in Dorset, increases the amount of water and mud on the roads.
Regular readers will know of my antipathy to the Natural Capital approach. But the principle being established by Letwin goes beyond whether we see nature through an economic frame or not. Letwin, a senior figure in the Government and one very close to the current PM, is saying that we as a society have to move beyond business as usual and change the way we manage the landscape, ie river catchments, to slow the flow of water.
Next week sees Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee continue its investigation into the floods. They have called George Monbiot to speak.
I hesitate to say it, but it does seem as though there is some momentum building as a result of the appalling flooding that has happened this winter. It’s incumbent on us all to keep pushing at this issue, keep it at the top of politician’s agendas, to achieve a recognition that we need to work with nature, not against it.