Photo - International Cider Festival
The fourth university student has drowned in the river here in a very short period of time. If you fall into the river right now, you stand even less chance of getting out - the metal flood-barrier is raised and the tonnage of water hurtling beneath it produces a humming roar which can be heard from hundreds of yards away, and a turbulence on the other side which reminds me of the Corryvrecken from 'I Know Where I'm Going'.
My friend lives in the heart of the Somerset Levels, right next to one of the biggest land-drainage channels. Despite this, she has not been flooded as previous residents have in former years.
This is not because the Environment Agency has cut the weeds and dredged it - they have told the locals that they are forbidden to do this themselves (as they have been doing for about 300 years) because of 'health and safety' issues, but they should leave it to the professionals, i.e., them. Meanwhile, the agency is axing 1500 jobs in the department.
A local farmer has decided he cannot stand by and watch several hundred people get flooded out of their homes, so he has cut the weed beds and takes it upon himself to operate the sluice-gates which the Agency does not touch. This is why that particular stretch has not flooded.
Who is going to prosecute him for going against the regulations, when the local M.P. has gone on national media to call on the Environment Agency to 'just get on with it'?
4000 homes were built on known flood-plains last year, and car-parks continue to be built near rivers, forming impervious slopes down which inches of rain can make its unhindered way to the rivers, and those rivers have not been dredged for many years because of cost. It is very difficult to get reasonably priced house insurance in Britain, if you live within about 50 yards of any sort of water at all.
A local river man I know has sounded this particular stretch leading to Bristol and the Severn Estuary, and I think I am right in saying that he has noticed the depth of it to be halved in places, over the last 30 years.
When I last renewed our insurance, the lady on the other end of the phone asked me if I lived within 50 metres of water, and I replied 'yes', with the caveat that I was about 50 meters above the water as well, so if our compact but adorable city apartment were to be flooded, then so would about 98% of the rest of Somerset. I said that if this were to happen, then the only thing to be above water for about 50 miles would be the Mendip Hills, and possibly the tower on top of Glastonbury Tor.
Last year, the underground car-park attached to the new Southgate complex was flooded out because the massive pumps they installed when building it failed to operate automatically. This bit of news never made it to the local paper, and presumably the owners of the destroyed cars were payed off for their losses.
Shortly before granting permission to build this car-park which is way below the river level, the planners refused permission for a new and exciting design college to be built using a mixture of private and public money, because it was going to be next to the river, albeit about 40 feet higher, and fitted with hi-tech anti-flooding devices. They were worried about the welfare of the 300 or so students who would spend their days in it, apparently.
They don't seem to be so worried about the several hundred people who will be spending their nights in the newly built housing complex a little further downstream, though.
We just cannot afford joined-up thinking these days.