The Somerset Levels recovered after the 2014 floods by using old ideas

The Somerset Levels recovered after the 2014 floods by using old ideas

Proof you CAN turn back the tide: The Somerset Levels were devastated by floods in 2014, so how have they survived this year’s deluges? The answer is simple: by ignoring modern eco-zealots and using some ideas of old

  • The Moorland Levels in Somerset were devastated by floodwaters in 2014
  • But they have escaped the worst of this year’s deluges, David Jones observes
  • Locals claim UK politicians aimed to transform the Levels into a wildlife wetland
  • Funds for dredging and pumping were withheld, increasing the risk of deluge
  • The community took matters into its own hands, and staved this year’s worst

No one who saw Bryony Sadler’s reaction, after being informed that floodwater had poured into her family’s smallholding – a handsome Victorian rectory set on a seven-acre plot in the Somerset Levels – will easily forget her anguish.

Having remained in the house for a month, watching the inexorable advance of a foul green tide from the swollen River Tone, four miles away, she had just been evacuated along with her husband, Gavin, their two young children, and their menagerie of animals: dozens of chickens, a pony, rabbits, guinea pigs and two dogs.

And in a scene that became an emblem of the catastrophe that had beset hundreds of families living on the Levels, as violent storms battered western England, a BBC camera crew captured the moment the police phoned her with the news she had been dreading.

Mrs Sadler’s first reaction was to clasp her head in her hands in despair. ‘We’ve virtually lost it all, then,’ she uttered through tear-stained fingers, envisaging the end of an idyllic rural lifestyle that had taken years to build.

That was in the winter of 2014, when the Levels – a vast, low-lying natural drain for the network of tidal rivers flowing off the surrounding hills, and prone to serious flooding – were deluged by some of the worst floods in memory.

Moorland, in Somerset (pictured), was devastated by floods in 2014 which set the tourism industry more than £200million, it was claimed at the time

Despite successive weekends of storms battering Britain, Moorlands (pictured) survived this year’s deluges by ignoring ‘modern eco-zealots’, David Jones argues

As the 160,000-acre expanse was submerged, hundreds of homes were destroyed and the farmland became a vast lake. The village of Muchelney was turned into an island – intrepid former Mail reporter Paul Harris got there by rowing boat. 

What an extraordinary contrast with the scene that greeted me in the Levels.

While many areas of England and Wales have been inundated after huge rainstorms – this week it was the turn of towns in East Yorkshire along the River Aire, last week it was Shrewsbury, Ironbridge, and Worcester along the River Severn – in the Levels, by some small miracle, the streets and houses are dry.

Admittedly, rainfall in the area in January and February 2014 was almost twice as heavy as it has been in the first two months of 2020, yet this month’s rain was still 70 percent above average.

Furthermore, the autumn of 2019, when 526.9mm of rain fell, was far wetter than that of 2013, when 389.5mm did, so we might have expected the water-table to rise even higher this time around.

Given such wet weather, 44-year-old Mrs Sadler feels sure that the roads and fields would have been underwater in bygone years.

Muchelney in Somerset was cut off for over a month by floodwater in January 2014 (pictured, a schoolboy waiting to be picked up by a humanitarian support boat)

Yet although her Alexa smart speaker annoyingly parrots the latest flood alerts, there is not the slightest sign of the disastrous 6ft surge that forced her family to ‘live out of boxes’ for nine months, until their home and business were restored by way of a £500,000 insurance pay-out (some Levels residents had no coverage and are still suffering the consequences).

‘You can see a few puddles on the fields, and the ground around the house is a bit soggy,’ she told me, gesturing through the window. ‘But it really isn’t much, considering the amount of rain we’ve had.’

It certainly isn’t, as I saw when strolling down the road people rowed along in 2014.

Yes, water lapped the hedgerows, but this is normal for the Levels in winter. It would have needed to rise by many feet before impeding passing cars.

David Jones (pictured) argues Moorland escaped the worst of this year’s deluges by taking common-sense measures in defiance of EU-directed environmental regulations

Since new Environment Secretary George Eustice was attacked by the Farmers’ Union for the Government’s perceived tardiness in tackling the flooding crisis (he responded by pledging to spend ‘record’ amounts on defences, but laid much of the blame on climate change), this begs some pertinent questions.

How have the Levels managed to the hold back the torrents? Why is the area better protected now than in 2014? And could the methods that worked here be used with similar effect elsewhere?

Of course, when it comes to topography, no two areas are alike; and the means of combating upstream floods, for example, will differ from tactics used in an area such as the Levels, which lie close to the coast and rise only a few feet above sea-level.

Nonetheless, according to David Hall, chairman of the Somerset Rivers Authority, the work that has reduced the risk of flooding in this unusual West Country swathe, with its Dutch-style man-made dykes, could be adapted as a ‘template’ for other flood-prone areas.

And he believes they could learn invaluable lessons by studying the intriguing story behind the great Levels flood of 2014.

At the heart of the story lies an ideological power struggle between a powerful Green lobby – hidebound by idealistic but dangerously impractical EU wildlife directives – and more traditional guardians of the countryside.

The Levels have been flooded periodically since early medieval times, when monks first reclaimed the boggy land for farming. However, until 25 years ago, a water-management system, modernised and refined over the centuries, ensured its houses largely remained dry.

It hinged on regularly dredging the silt that washes up from the Bristol Channel and slows the flow of the four main rivers. Unless this is removed, during heavy rainfall it can cause them to burst their banks. A series of pumping stations also removed excess water.

But matters changed when stewardship of rural England’s land, rivers and coastline fell under the remit of the Environment Agency, formed in 1995.

The work of local drainage boards was hampered by the new agency’s zealous enforcement of EU waste-removal regulations, with habitat directives placing ‘sustainability’ and ‘biodiversity’ ahead of the need to safeguard homes, businesses and farmland.

These Brussels-concocted rules made it almost impossible to dispose of tonnes of dredged-up silt.

Matters worsened considerably after 2000, as many locals recall, when Baroness Young of Old Scone, a Labour peeress who had previously run the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England, became chief executive of the EA.

Intent on creating havens where wildlife could flourish, she determined to transform the Levels into a vast wetland suitable for water-voles and wading birds.

To this end, she actively promoted flooding by withdrawing funds for dredging and pumping.

If she had her way, she remarked, she would plant ‘a limpet-mine on every pumping station’. Indeed, in a lecture to a House of Lords Committee, she said her recipe was cheap and simple: ‘For instant wildlife, just add water’.

However, people living on the Levels will tell you that her tenure was a recipe for disaster.

Baroness Young is unmoved. She insists that dredging has not stopped the Levels flooding.

‘The Somerset Levels were intended to be flood plains,’ she says. ‘Dredging the Levels for farming at all costs is not my idea of a balanced solution. You have got to take into account issues of biodiversity and climate change. I feel I have been vindicated quite substantially over the past few years.

‘People were desperate just to do something, but dredging doesn’t solve anything. It just moves the flow of water down to the next pinch point.

‘What was always needed was systems … that hold back the flow of water, so that it comes down gradually, rather than in a rush.

‘These effective solutions that I was thinking about in my time at the EA are what people are now talking about. So I am not lying awake thinking I have done something wrong.’

A bold assertion. However, by 2012, two years before the tumultuous floods, Mrs Sadler, who lives in Moorland, near Bridgwater, and other Levels residents were so concerned by rising water levels they formed a pressure group to lobby for a resumption of silt dredging.

A local farmer also wrote to then Prime Minister David Cameron, warning of impending disaster.

Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The result was a flood so devastating that it cost Somerset £200million in lost tourism revenue alone.

Ruined farmland and crops, damage to property, and the massive evacuation and mopping-up operation cost hundreds more millions.

It also cost then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson his job. Partly because he was ridiculed by the media for wearing town shoes, rather than wellingtons, when he went to inspect the flooded Levels, Mr Cameron deemed Paterson to have ‘had a bad flood’ and sacked him soon afterwards.

In the eyes of many Levels-dwellers, however, the North Shropshire MP is a hero. Mrs Sadler, for one, says she ‘adores him’.

For while Mr Cameron was seen flitting about in a helicopter, and delivered suitable soundbites, Paterson instigated an innovative and effective action plan.

It was implemented that same summer, soon after the floodwater had subsided – a refreshing departure given that government schemes are usually mired for an eternity in red-tape. Though dredging was recommenced, after 20 years, there is far more to it than that. New pumping stations have been built, sumps dug to hold excess water, sluice-gates put in place; some villages are now protected by walls known as ‘bunds’.

Further upstream, the cascade of river water has been slowed by erecting barriers called ‘leaky dams’, planting more trees, and encouraging farms to plough the land so that run-off sinks into it.

In all, 150 preventative actions have been taken, overseen by the Somerset Rivers Authority, a body which Mr Paterson also created.

By 2024, his plan should have its pièce de résistance: a £100million tidal barrier stretching across the River Parrett estuary.

Much of this is being funded by a special levy added to Somerset’s council tax; some residents outside the Levels object to paying this.

Yet floods indirectly affect everyone in the county by hitting the local economy and transport, and it is cheaper to fund improvements than repair widespread damage.

All this is a salutary reminder to Boris Johnson and Mr Eustice – who have faced criticism in recent days for their tardy response to the floods – of what can be done with sufficient drive and good will.

When I spoke to Mr Paterson this week, he was clearly still angry at being scapegoated by Cameron, and dismissed as the ‘Wally without Wellies’ (‘I had two pairs with me in the car,’ he fumed).

In truth, he said, he had rushed to the Levels of his own accord when the full extent of the disaster became evident.

Looking for solutions, he consulted farmers and landowners. A broad outline of the emergency plan was written that same night.

‘It is all about listening to the people who really know how to manage the countryside,’ he told me, suggesting the same should be done at the latest flood flashpoints.

Though this is disputed by some engineers, he believes the fundamentals of his Levels flood prevention plan would apply elsewhere.

‘It’s like having a huge bath with a blocked plughole. If you just un-bung it, the water will drain away,’ he says.

Mr Paterson is scathing of Baroness Young’s ‘catastrophic’ policies, and dismissive of those who argue that flooding is the inevitable result of climate change, implying that it cannot be eradicated.

With Britain having just left the EU, he argues, we have the opportunity to manage the environment, free of European diktat. In this, he is looking to his successor, Mr Eustice, to take a strong lead.

Is he doing enough to fight the floods? ‘He’s only been in the job a few weeks – give him a chance!’

Back in her renovated old rectory, Bryony Sadler agrees that other flood-hit areas could learn from experiences on the Levels.

‘There’s no point deciding what to do from an office in London,’ she says. ‘You have got to engage with the community.

Earlier this week, her heart sank when a nearby river suddenly rose. It happened because two of the four pumps were switched off, she says. When the EA was alerted, they were turned on again.

‘It shows how the flooding we had in 2014 could happen again without proper management,’ she says.

‘If the people in power hadn’t listened to us, we might have been in the same situation as the rest of the country this week.

‘But if they stop maintaining the rivers in the Levels, it could happen again here, too.’

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