Alan Winstanley: We can all protect homes against flooding

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SOME 10 years ago, I volunteered as a parish councillor for the North Lincolnshire village where I’ve lived since the late 1970s. I’d decided to stop moaning about life and pitch in to do my bit. Many mundane issues were dealt with and little exercised village life more than inconsiderate dog owners, parking on double-yellow lines or kids riding on the pavement.

The local area was hit by flooding on June 25, 2007, and my parish council experiences taught me a lot about the local authorities, local people and their expectations and attitudes. Council workers tried pumping away the gathering waters but everyone looked on grimly as the water levels rose steadily.

In all seriousness, in the mayhem I eventually received the offer of a dozen or so empty sandbags – but I would have to drive to a nearby town to fetch them. Gradually the water subsided, impeded by some silted-up drains and gulleys leading to the local becks, drains and the Humber. Life returned to normal, leaving some homeowners nursing their losses, and then the recriminations started.

It would be easy to blame the Environment Agency for our woes, and at a subsequent meeting I was startled by the EA executive who spelled out the stark facts and shrugged, as if to say what do you expect? It was also known that local authorities sometimes ignored EA advice and granted planning permission on areas that were deemed a flood risk.

Apart from the Environment Agency, other local bodies also contribute to our complex drainage and irrigation network. Local authority departments, Anglian Water, local drainage boards, various river authorities, landowners and farmers share responsibility for the upkeep of our drains, ditches, dykes, gulleys and culverts that have evolved over the centuries. The drainage system ducks and dives under roadways or alongside field boundaries and responsibilities are divided accordingly. Who owns that blocked up culvert, the water authority, the drainage board or the local council? Or should local residents look after it instead, and stop blocking it with grass cuttings? The answers to many such questions have been lost in time.

It seemed to me that the local drainage board had the boots-on-the-ground knowledge of our ditches and drains, but their meagre resources were overstretched. Otherwise there seemed to be little central co-ordination of the area’s network, with much finger-pointing of responsibilities towards other organisations while residents and their parish councils were left stuck in the middle. I got used to seeing various agencies passing the buck until the worn-out parish council fell silent on the issue.

North Lincolnshire Council then organised a flood-defence exhibition to show homeowners what could be done. Devices that stopped the loo from back-flooding and gadgets that stopped water seeping through airbricks were all on show. Surprisingly few local residents took advantage of the opportunity to learn more; perhaps some hoped we would visit the trade fair on their behalf and provide individual advice in a doorstep visit afterwards. In fact, I was surprised that many people seemed to be either helpless or reluctant to help themselves. No-one doubted that elderly, infirm or disabled residents needed aid as a priority, but it probably came as a shock to others when they realised that they could not entirely rely on the authorities and would have to roll up their sleeves and take steps in order to help themselves.

Later, at parish council level, a village emergency plan was put together which asked for local volunteers and resources (nursing, transport, tractors, emergency accommodation, pumps and generators etc) that we could call upon after a flood, snowstorm or major road or rail accident. The idea was well received by appreciative residents and I was pleased to see many different local people were eager to put their name down to help. There is an underlying spirit of willingness to help against the odds, waiting to be tapped into and harnessed.

The flipside is the problem of trying to manage expectations, in case everyone expects comprehensive help to arrive at the press of a button. Even in today’s floods people exclaim that “no-one has been to see us” just as I heard in 2007. Unfortunately, residents’ expectations are probably too high in that respect, but clearly a good starting point in creating a new self-help plan is to draw on local people with local knowledge and local resources.

Rural areas like ours need a wholly new and joined-up approach to bring the flood defences and drainage network into the 21st century. It’s inevitable that as individuals we too need to start taking practical steps to protect ourselves better and take more responsibility for our own property, looking out for our neighbours too, as the broken system of disjointed authorities cannot be relied upon when we literally need baling out of trouble.