Short-sighted budget cuts have left Britain unable to withstand a repeat of the 1953 floods, which engulfed thousands of hectares of farmland, industry leaders have warned.
More than 300 people were killed and 100,000ha of farmland were flooded when a storm surge combined with a spring tide to sweep a barrage of water over miles of sea walls in one of Britain’s worst peace-time disasters on 31 January 1953.
Livestock drowned and tracts of farmland were left infertile from the Humber to the Thames estuary. Nearly 25,000 homes were damaged – some completely swept away. The worst incident was on Canvey Island, Essex, where 58 people died.
Modern communication systems and weather monitoring mean loss of life from a similar event today would probably be lower. But sea defences remain vulnerable due to government cutbacks and bureaucracy, warned NFU environment adviser Rob Wise.
“We have had discussions with the government about stockpiling clay on agricultural land ready to fill breaches in sea walls, and our talks just get bound up in red tape,” Mr Wise told Farmers Weekly. “We never quite get to the point when we are completely sure we are able to do it.”
A major programme of rebuilding and heightening the east coast flood walls began soon after the 1953 catastrophe. But many miles of those sea walls are now weather-beaten and in need of major maintenance, said Tim Woodward, rural adviser for the Country Land and Business Association.
“It would be foolish of us to believe nothing like the horror of six decades ago could happen again,” said Mr Woodward. “I think we have to accept that it may be uneconomic for the government and local authorities to maintain coastal defences to the extent that they have in the past.”
He added: “We need to cut red tape to ensure that the system makes it easier for landowners to apply to maintain their own defences, perhaps in collaboration with local communities, and that they are fully rewarded for providing flood alleviation measures.”
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