Britain: flooding cause that the Gov’t is keeping to itself

28.12.2015 - Tony Henderson

Britain: flooding cause that the Gov’t is keeping to itself
Philip Walling (Image by Johnson & Alcock)

British author and former sheep farmer Philip Walling wrote an article in the (Newcastle) Chronicle that highlights one of the causes of the recent North-West England floods – which is the near complete cessation of dredging of British rivers since the government was required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000.

It is obvious that any active watercourse needs to be big enough to take any water that flows into it, or it would overflow and inundate the surrounding land and its homes.

“City authorities and, before them, manors and towns and villages, organised themselves to make sure their watercourses were cleansed, deepened and sometimes embanked to hold whatever water they had to carry away,” Walling says.

Continuing, “In nineteenth century Cockermouth they came up with an ingenious way of doing this. Any able-bodied man seeking bed and board for the night in the workhouse was required to take a shovel and wheelbarrow down to the River Derwent and fetch back two barrow-loads of gravel for mending the roads. Adding, “This had the triple benefit of dredging the river, maintaining the roads and making indigent men useful.”

In places like Cumbria the locals knew they had to keep the river clear of the huge quantities of gravel that were washed down from the fells, especially in times of heavy downpours, as Cumbrian rivers are very quick to rise as the rain that falls copiously on the High Fells rapidly runs off the thin soils over large surface areas.

He further notes that Cumbrian people have always known that their rivers would be subject to such sudden and often violent inundations and prepared for them by deepening and embanking their channels. Such work was taken very seriously and there are numerous records over many centuries of the Cockermouth Court Leet (Manor Court) imposing fines on land occupiers for neglecting to cleanse the watercourses that run through their land. So important was it to prevent flooding that the court often issued detailed and explicit instructions to parishes how to cleanse their various watercourses.

“For example in 1718 (and again in 1772) certain owners, whose land bordered the river, were fined for allowing it to become ‘beaten out of its course by sand and gravel’ and given two months to dredge it out,” so it was obvious to everyone that depended on the land for their living that failing to keep the rivers clear of sand and gravel would cause them to burst their banks and destroy in a few hours the fertility that had taken generations to create, even wash away their houses, and carry off and drown their livestock.

“Last century the obligation to dredge out the rivers was transferred to local river boards, consisting of farmers and landowners who knew the area and its characteristics, and who had statutory responsibilities to prevent or minimise flooding,” Walling explains.

But all this changed with the creation of the Environment Agency in 1997 and when the UK adopted the European Water Framework Directive in 2000.

Instead of flood prevention, emphasis shifted to a primary obligation to achieve ‘good ecological status’ for rivers. This defined as being as close as possible to ‘undisturbed natural conditions’.

“So, in order to comply with the obligations imposed on us by the EU we had to stop dredging and embanking and allow rivers to ‘re-connect with their floodplains’, as the currently fashionable jargon has it. And to ensure this is done, the obligation to dredge has been shifted from the relevant statutory authority (now the Environment Agency) onto each individual landowner, at the same time making sure there are no funds for dredging. And any sand and gravel that might be removed is now classed as ‘hazardous waste’ and cannot be deposited to raise the river banks, as it used to be, but has to be carted away.”

To see more details view the original article on:

This example points at the problem of forming a big economic-political grouping, the over-riding of local authorities ability to deal with situations they alone are sufficiently knowledgeable about. Unless this kind of ruinous standardisation is halted amalgamations such as the European Union will fail to bring about the quality life for many that one presumes is its real aim – at least that’s what any individual living within its domain would hope is the real aim.

*Philip Walling from Belsay, Northumberland is the author of  Counting Sheep published in 2014 by Profile Books and is currently writing a book on man’s relationship with water.


Categories: Ecology and Environment, Europe
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