Trust has to be earned over time - 12th November 2008

Can the Environment Agency be Trusted?  

We used to rely on common sense, but now hardly any decision can be taken without consulting an expert. Their reports are produced; we are expected to trust the report and put absolute faith in its recommendations, and nobody wants to ask too many questions. This is not just what can happen in Council, but it happens in all walks of life, and is a way of absolving oneself from all moral responsibility for decisions that might otherwise be publicly unacceptable.

Why should anybody trust an official or an expert? Nobody has to trust anybody. The fact that officials have professional qualifications, look good and speak well does not make their advice right. Trust is something which is earned over time, and depends largely on reputation. It is unfair to ask people who don’t know you to trust you. That is like asking people to make a judgement without having the necessary information.

The classic example of experts whose useless and worthless advice we are all expected to trust and accept is the Environment Agency. Only a few years ago, millions of pounds of tax payers’ money was invested in a well designed flood prevention system for Malton and Norton, which so far has worked extremely well. The defences are based on a system of flood walls: when the river Derwent rises to a certain height, heavy water-tight gates are closed, and the walls hold back the flood water.

We are now into the “main” stage of the River Derwent Flood Management Plan. This follows the first one, and is even more explicit and should fill everybody in the Vale of Pickering with alarm. The draft version contains some elementary mistakes, such as miscalculating the population of the catchment, and a nice seaside picture of  Sandsend, Whitby, which is not even part of the Derwent Catchment.

It contains the following “key message”: “Flood levels may increase in the future because of climate change, making it more likely that Malton’s flood defences will be overtopped.”

On being questioned about dredging, the Agency said: “Dredging usually takes place within urban areas where sedimentation may lead to the blockage of culverts and the urban drainage system, resulting in significant economic damage. Within the Derwent catchment, dredging is not classed as economically or environmentally viable. This is due to the designation of the River Derwent corridor as a Special Area of Conservation, as well as the significant cost of continually dredging the river”

Now you don’t need to be a genius to see that, if the river is not dredged, the level of the river bed will rise, and that it is this that will cause the flood defences to be overtopped – not climate change.

What then  is the Agency’s solution to the  future overtopping of Malton’s flood defences? I quote: “The embankments upstream of Malton may now not be required due to the hard defences at the town. Their operation and design will be investigated”.

Another passage is worth quoting in regard to an area North of Malton and West of Pickering: “Development of a plan to facilitate the withdrawal of maintenance to flood banks throughout the policy unit where possible”.

Of course, the maintenance of flood banks in these areas has been neglected for years, and the plan is clear: as the Agency won’t dredge the rivers, they will stop Malton and Norton’s flood defences being overtopped by removing flood banks and allowing the land to the North of the towns to flood.

The lesson is simple: if officials tell you something which seems to defy common sense, ask questions and test and examine their reasoning, but never..never... give them your trust until they have proved their case.


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