Fyson on ... Lessons that can be drawn from response ..

Lessons that can be drawn from response to East Anglian tidal surge that failed to materialise.

In some quarters, there was a sense of disappointment as the flood crisis expected to hit East Anglia last week failed to materialise. It would have suited newspapers to carry screaming disaster headlines and to begin the process of allocating blame. Salvation is never such a good story, especially where it cannot be ascribed to heroism.

The Environment Agency and the government's emergency Cobra committee can take some quiet satisfaction from the promptness of their reaction and the publicity effort that got people to safety. Yet even agency head Barbara Young will be wary of getting a reputation for crying wolf too often. It is important that research is put in hand to establish the causes of this happy outcome.

We need to know how the tidal surge compared to the devastating flood event of 1953. If it was as big or bigger, what saved the coast this time? Although some might have secretly welcomed another episode of nature flexing its muscles to society's serious disadvantage to reinforce the climate change message, the real story might have been that hard coastal defence engineering in the last half century had made the difference.

The implications of this conclusion will not be welcomed by those fatalists, some of them working at the agency itself, who discount the technical fix when considering development proposals in areas liable to flood. In the context of mean sea levels rising to no-one knows what height in this century and the next, it is clear that no fix can be guaranteed to provide a permanent solution.

However, establishing whether it is worth investing in protection and mitigation measures whose effective lifespan is unknown is not a simple matter. Some 54 years' worth of protection, however nearly it was overtopped this time, could well be considered worthwhile under the circumstances.

Yet the media remain fixated by the idea that nowhere subject to floods, even if they are infrequent, shallow or relatively easy to hold at bay, should ever be built on and that no other consideration need be brought to bear. An authority that is minded to pass such an application, as recently in Lincolnshire, finds itself cross-examined and pilloried.

The welcome increase in planning authorities' awareness of flooding, through a combination of major flood events and Environment Agency activity, does not absolve them from the need to balance advantages and disadvantages. The fact that there are fewer disagreements between the agency and local authorities these days indicates an emerging consensus. But the development option must still be properly assessed.


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