Two recent news stories have added to my fear that we’re not planning properly for the future in this country of ours.
Imagine for a moment, you live in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, perhaps in a new development. It’s peaceful place, with beautiful countryside nearby to walk the dog, including Toddbrook Reservoir, its calm waters lapping against a mighty dam that towers above the village.
Then the rain comes and comes and comes. Torrents of water flow down the outside of the dam. There’s a knock on the door and the police ask you to leave your home. The dam’s damaged and millions of tonnes of water could sweep through the village if it fails.
It’s difficult to imagine, let alone believe that a village could be swept away in this day and age. The drama was intense, the stakes high. Could those battling to save the village empty the reservoir in time? We had pumps, Chinook helicopters and the massed ranks of the media on hand to keep us up to date.
Below the village became a ghost town. Those evacuated watched and waited to learn whether they would have homes to return to.
On Friday, large swathes of the country lost power around 5pm. Trains stopped running. Stations were closed. Traffic lights went out. For a while, no one knew what was happening. Power was restored, but what had caused such a massive failure in the national grid?
It appears two generators went offline with minutes of each other, leading to the failures.
While these are very different events, they share one thing in common – can they cope with the demands of today and the challenges of the future?
In our rush to move forward, to develop and build, are we neglecting the infrastructure needed to support our future?
The intense rainfall that damaged the dam at Whaley Bridge may have been unusual, but scientists say global warming will lead to more extreme weather conditions. Then there is the age of the dam, its construction, its condition, the wear and tear it faces daily.
And let’s not forget the housing developments permitted below the reservoir over the decades.
The purpose of planning is to balance development needs with their impact on the environment and local communities. The pressure to build more houses leads to encroachment into the countryside and development on flood plains. Local authority refusals are often overturned by government inspectors, which can make you wonder whether there’s any point in local plans.
Each house built needs water, power and drainage. While estates spring up, where are the new reservoirs, sewage works and power stations to sustain them? Where are the extra schools and GP surgeries for the people who will live there?
If anything, we’re losing teachers and GPs at a time when we need them more than ever.
The same imbalance seems to be building with power supply. More and more homes and businesses draw electricity through the National Grid. Are we generating enough power to meet the growing demands of more households with more computers and electronics? Can the existing systems cope with the extra power they have to move?
And what about the future, when the government imagines we’ll all be driving electric cars to reduce carbon emissions?
Do we have enough charging points around the country to tempt people to switch to electric cars? If we did, can the National Grid cope with the additional consumption?
Why aren’t solar panels a legal requirement on all new build properties to increase the amount of green energy we produce?
Existing sewage works and drainage networks were designed and built for a different age. They now have to cope with the waste water from thousands of additional properties, while ensuring the final effluents meet strict environmental standards. How many more developments can they cope with before they fail?
Water pressures are increased when more houses need a supply. Old supply pipes can only take so much pressure before joints burst. When they do, they can close roads for days, affecting the local economy and wellbeing of people.
And as many of the companies responsible for our infrastructure are privately owned, will shareholders agree to fund the new reservoirs and sewage works we need? Will developers be made to pay for and build schools and GP surgeries for the people who will occupy their estates?
During my time as an environmental health officer, I was consulted on major developments by my colleagues in the Planning Department. Many times, I questioned whether the local sewerage systems could cope with the additional volume of waste water likely to be produced.
I don’t recall newer, larger sewers ever being built.
I’ve queried the impact of development on local communities and raised concerns about the impact on groundwater and potential flooding. Years later, I’ve been called back because residents had water ponding under their floors or flooding in their gardens.
The role of local government, particularly Planning and Environmental Health, is to protect the community and the environment and foresee and prevent future problems.
But when will government and the political parties do the same and agree a long term strategy to ensure we invest as much in the infrastructure and wellbeing of our communities as we do in new development?
What do you think?