Many Londoners, including me, a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and councillor for West Barnes in Merton, feel anxious every time it seriously rains. If it lasts for an hour or more, my inboxes, Facebook tags and texts fill with photos and videos of the weather. I forward them to council officers and report them to Thames Water, but it all seems too reactive. Londoners who have to replace their floors and furniture due to flooding, need answers and solutions. Where’s the protection and proactive action?
When Merton Lib Dem Councillors asked Thames Water for answers, this was the response we received:
“Our figures suggest that the initial storm marked a one in 100-year event but, due to the very localised nature of the rainfall, some areas saw a far more intense downpour, pushing that figure towards a one in 300-year event. For reference, our assets are designed to cope with one in 30-year floods (as set out by our regulators). During this period of severe weather, a huge amount of rain entered and hydraulically overloaded our sewer system, which was never designed to cope with rain on this scale.”
I then spoke to George Mayhew, Thames Water’s Corporate Affairs Director, who was incredibly humble in his response. He acknowledged things were not good enough and that we can’t have a system that assesses rainfall on outdated data. In fact, the evidence is increasingly clear. The climate emergency is real. It is quite literally drowning us – leading to misery for households, businesses being wrecked and public services, including hospitals, being disrupted. Can we really not be more prepared to keep our capital safe? And is there more Sadiq Khan could be doing?
Addressing climate change is an immense task and many solutions will involve long-term planning, but there must be more effective short term measures too. I was pleased to see the Mayor recently hold a roundtable meeting with Thames Water, London boroughs, the Environment Agency and other important stakeholders, but unless results flow from it, the event will have been more talk but no action.
What can be done? At a local level, many people are frustrated when they see blocked drains and gullies. Although responsibility primarily lies with local authorities, there are examples where Transport for London could step up, for example in relation to red routes.
At a higher level, the Environment Agency is responsible for defences against flooding. Yet there is little in place for such as at Beverley Brook, a small south west London river which is now a risk hotspot, causing havoc in Worcester Park and New Malden.
Then there is the issue of natural drainage – or the lack of it. Many sports grounds and parks often look like lakes and overflow into neighbouring gardens and homes, leaving blameless homeowners having to pay for the damage. Yet London also has good examples of how to cope with flood water locally.
In Lewisham, which has a history of flooding problems as a Daily Mirror front page from from 1968 shows, a restoration project at Ladywell Fields liberated the River Ravensbourne river from its old channel and enabled it to meander back through the centre of the park, giving it more space to store water during rainy spells and create more habitats for wildlife too.
However, the future is not encouraging for initiatives of this kind. And this is where the Mayor must step up. His environment strategy, published in 2018, highlights that 17.5 kilometres of river channel have been restored since 2009. However, it also admits that progress in this area is going to slow, just when we need to be speeding up. London has over 600 kilometres of rivers and streams, but most have been straightened with concrete or steel embankments. We need less of that a more of what’s been done in Ladywell. The Mayor should make funding for restoring our rivers a key priority.
The Mayor also needs to ensure that his planning policies are actually implemented. Since 2008, there has been guidance which says that the hard surfacing of more than five square metres of domestic front gardens is only permitted if permeable materials are used. Is this guidance being followed? My suspicion is that it is largely being ignored.
It is clear that we can’t carry on like this. Ironically, it now over 30 years since Prince Charles spoke to the Institute of Water & Environment Management about the impeding environmental crisis. He said:
“In common, I suspect, with many other people I must confess that I have tended to take the provision of water for granted. It appears, as if by magic, out of the tap and it vanishes conveniently down a plughole to become someone else’s problem. The same is even more true of sewage. The pulling of that plug induces a delightful state of “out of sight, out of mind”, and owing to the wonders of modern engineering we have been lulled into a false sense of security. We have no longer been able to see water as a precious resource, and we have ignored sewage as a waste product with enormous potential. But now, with a growing awareness of the long-term environmental costs of such a conveniently profligate approach, our attitudes are, I think, beginning to change.”
Sadly, though, not enough has changed and we are now seeing the devastating results. The Mayor is not solely responsible for addressing this issue – climate change is indeed a global responsibility. But there are practical and immediate actions that could be taken to at least mitigate the worst of the flooding now facing Londoners. Action, not words, are needed now.
Hina Bokhari is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and deputy chair of its economy committee. She is also a Merton Councillor. Follow her on Twitter. Photograph: Beverley Brooke by Shaun Ferguson.
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