Last week a hole appeared in the central reservation of the M2 in Kent. As a result, traffic was diverted past thatched cottages, barns and oasthouses near Canterbury, causing the biggest bottleneck since Chaucer’s pilgrims clogged up the High Street. We’ve had cars dropping to Inner Earth from driveways in Buckinghamshire, evacuation from the threat of sudden descent in Hemel Hempstead, gardens limbering up to swallow children in South London, and houses splitting in two in Yorkshire. It all seems to be closely linked to the floods.
The favourite smug comment aimed at victims of our present natural disaster is ‘Well, you shouldn’t live on a flood plain’. Try extending that to ‘You shouldn’t live over a Victorian sewage system’ or ‘You shouldn’t live above a layer of chalk or gypsum’. The only acceptable assertion is ‘You shouldn’t live in a country where it rains a lot’, but who really wants to move to Egypt, regardless of the property prices?
Now that the very ground is giving way, eroded by our most notable climate characteristic, there’s only one real therapy. We need someone to blame.
Unfortunately, the bankers are in the clear on this one. I’d happily fit them up good and proper – who wouldn’t? – but I just can’t pin the weather on them. The Met Office? Well, they did see the rains coming. They were late in their warnings, but it was hardly a Michael Fish moment.
So who’s the best candidate for the pillory? Well, I’m sorry to nominate a sitting duck but it has to be the Environment Agency. Now I wouldn’t normally put a duck in the pillory or – if it’s sitting – in the stocks, but these are special circumstances. And the Agency’s deficiency lies in one word:
People who are regularly flooded know what to do when it occurs because it’s an unpleasant but predictable fact of life. Venetians keep the ground floor clear because of frequent high waters. They even line the city squares with collapsible duckboards, ready to provide a dry walkway for locals who consider wellies unstylish. But most Brits are not used to such inundation. They need notice of the approaching threat and clear advice on what to do when the worst happens.
In this corner of Kent we had our flood scare just before Christmas. As a household we got off lightly, with the water stopping mercifully short of the door at 3 am. We’d already shifted what we could from the ground floor, but beyond that there seemed little to do other than wade through the local Venetian street-scene in the small-hours gloom, nervously observing the water-level.
I’d researched what I could during the brief lead-up, but – even for a chap who spends his working day goggling at screens of every shape and size – practical information and advice were almost impossible to find.
I had an infinite series of questions.
Are sandbags effective? How, exactly, do you deploy them? Where do you get them – are they supplied by the council or some other mysterious agency, or do you have to get the legendary things yourself from a builders’ yard? What if you haven’t got a car?
Is there any other option as a waterproof shield? How high should it be? Where can I get it?
How do you prepare for the worst, in case the water does break through your defences? What do you do about the electricity supply (all those ground floor plug sockets … )? What do you do about your main telephone line? What about your broadband connection? Aren’t they all electric, too? Can you protect any of them? If so, how? If not, what next?
What about the mains water? Will that be contaminated? If so, what do I do about it?
What about my insurance? What about my submerged car engine? And – in recent cases – what about the Volkswagen that’s disappeared down that hole?
These may all seem perfectly straightforward points to the accomplished handyman and small-print aficionado, but to a chap like me it’s foreign territory. However, one thing I’m OK at is research. I just couldn’t find any quick, easy answers, and time was running out.
Luckily, the waters went away before my sanity did. But I’m left wondering why the agency responsible for the effects of the environment didn’t issue a concise, easy-to-find, simple-to-understand checklist of what to expect and what to do.
The advertising industry is frivolous in many ways, but at its best it’s based on something surprisingly scientific: communicating a specific message to a target audience.
Government agencies spent millions on advertising and information before the infamous Comprehensive Spending Review of 2010. Among other things, this called an immediate halt to the multi-media flow of health and safety information.
‘Health and Safety’ is a topic much-mocked by tabloids looking for silly-season stories of bureaucratic interference, but you won’t find such dismissiveness when talking to someone who’s lost a limb in an industrial accident. Expertly delivered information and advice can mean the difference between life and death or serious injury.
Now, thanks to digital magic, communication is, in theory, increasingly quick and easy. Yet it’s worthless unless the message is clear and accessible. The information may be in there somewhere, but it won’t reach its target unless it’s analysed, rationalised, translated into the language of real people and delivered via the right route. That’s not a process government agencies are noted for. But it’s exactly what those frivolous advertising people do.
At times like this, it might be worth reconsidering that Comprehensive Spending Review. There might be a few holes in the argument.