Monday, 23 November 2009

Flood risks

Bad floods in the Lake District have dominated the news. One policeman directing traffic away from a bridge died when it collapsed into the swollen river. 1300 houses were flood damaged, and now 18 bridges are feared to be unsafe, disrupting the flow of Monday traffic.

By international standards this is a small disaster. It is not New Orleans. Far worse happens in the poor world, where thousands die, because warnings are late and buildings are fragile, and sometimes criminally unsafe. However, it is our little disaster, and it raises the general question as to what risks can be managed, and which must be simply endured.

No conceivable flood defences would have saved Cockermouth from the head high flood waters. Politicians do not want to admit in public that it would be cheaper to clean up after a flash flood than build walls round such towns. Better to let places suffer than waste money. Being flooded out of one's home is, somewhat surprisingly, highly traumatising despite no lives being lost, but this too can be set aside, and rightly ascribed to Fate.

Planning authorities have contributed to the problem, by letting houses be built on many flood plains: short termism at its worst. These same authorities and police forces have been quick to prohibit owners from return to shops that are palpably still standing, and closing off traffic from bridges till they have been inspected. Nothing wrong with that, you may say. We don't want another death on an unsafe bridge.

This goes to the heart of risk. No-one is allowed to proceed at their own risk. Obviously if you are an engineer and inspect a bridge and find a large gap in the structure, you are authorised to close it. However, why not allow people to cross bridges which have not been inspected, if they are willing to do so at their own risk? Similarly, why not let owners visit their destroyed shops in Cockermouth High Street at their own risk? Indeed, why not concede that adults can take risks?

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