DAVID RUFFLEY: Water, water everywhere . . .

Column by David Ruffley MP
Column by David Ruffley MP
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The floods have been of Biblical proportions on the Suffolk Coast. But just because we got off lightly here in west Suffolk, it doesn’t mean we’re off the hook.

We’ve had one of the wettest years since records began and there’s no reason to think it’s simply a freak event.

Average rainfall in Suffolk is usually 580mm a year – half the national average of 1,000mm. Yet, we’ve seen Flood Alerts and Warnings issued by the Environment Agency from the River Gipping to the River Rattlesden to the River Lark running from Sicklesmere, south of Bury, to Isleham, in Cambridgeshire.

Rattlesden Primary School had to close its doors. Fourteen homes in Bury were flooded as the River Linnet burst its banks. Passing soldiers helped trapped motorists on flooded roads near Tostock. Huge amounts of standing water on county roads caused accidents and tailbacks.

So what will next winter bring? I called the Environment Agency in to see me last week to get some answers.

The agency doesn’t do weather forecasts but it did say we must keep an eye on new housebuilding and where it goes. New homes are needed just to keep pace with Bury’s natural population growth. But which areas precisely might be flooded? The agency tells me that in 96 per cent of planning applications developers and councils ask the agency for its formal assessment of flood risk. Let’s hope they are reliable.

What else can be done locally? Well, I’d licence farmers to more regularly de-silt, clear blockages and manage vegetation on watercourses on their land. I’d also like to see a bigger role for East Anglia’s internal drainage boards – they have a pitifully low-profile at present.

And we need the Environment Agency to be smarter with its financial resources. Environmental protection laws should not come at the expense of river maintenance, especially if it means putting people and property at risk of flooding. The Netherlands is a lowland country with excellent flood defence practices – why not learn from them how environmental protection and flood policy can work hand in hand, not against each other?

Interestingly, some scientists think we may have the reverse problem – we may face drought conditions not floods in the next decade. With more houses in East Anglia in the next 20 years will household demand for water outstrip supply? Do we have enough reservoirs? And what action is Anglian Water taking?

Nature gave Suffolk a wake-up call with the floods. And that’s why I have decided to convene a Bury St Edmunds ‘Water Summit’ to get all the key players in our area – the councils, Anglian Water, the Environment Agency, the drainage boards, the NFU and conservation groups – to sit down and work out what the water policy should be for west Suffolk.

To modify Coleridge: Water, water everywhere, and now it’s time to think.