‘Working with nature’ didn’t save Pickering from the floods
7th January 2016
First published in the Guardian 7th January 2016: We must check the facts before jumping to conclusions about the efficacy of so-called natural flood defence schemes. They are an attractive idea but powerless in the face of extreme weather
The town of Pickering is a notorious flood spot in the north-east of England, on the edge of the North York moors. So when the town escaped flooding this Christmas while York – just 40 miles away – was underwater, it seemed an open and shut case. Surely, it was the recently opened “working with nature” flood defence scheme above Pickering that saved the town? For the many advocates of the benefits of working with nature it seemed a great vindication.
And when the Independent published Geoffrey Lean’s convincing article on the “town that escaped the flood”, it became an environmental sensation, with everyone from Chris Packham to former Tory environment minister Richard Benyon tweeting the story.
The only problem with this was that the town didn’t flood because of the flood scheme – but because it didn’t rain much at Christmas in Pickering.
In fact, the North York moors – where the water that floods Pickering comes from – were an anomalously dry spot in the whole of the north of England. It’s possible to see this even in the Met Office’s provisional December 2015 rainfall summary, and clearer still in the data from the weather station at Westerdale. All tell the same story – it did rain, but only a modest amount above the average.
The lesson from all this isn’t simply one of fully checking the facts. Working with nature to hold back floodwater – by measures like planting trees or renaturalising landscapes to store or absorb more water – is an attractive idea we all hope may be part of a future solution. But with something as important as flooding – where people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake – it’s vital not to jump to conclusions too quickly.