February 10, 2014 5:48 pm

An ark needed in beautiful England

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The UK’s continuing wet winter has prompted talk of a crisis in the southwest
Somerset farms like this one have been inundated©Getty

Somerset farms like this one have been inundated

Do go, dear Rain! do go away! .Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “An Ode To The Rain”, 1802).

Southwest England is used to rain: just ask people who have attended a few mud-swamped Glastonbury music festivals. But you have to sympathise with its current plight. Notebook has counted 179 references in newspapers to “Noah” and 167 to “biblical” as the region bears the brunt of England’s second wettest January since 1766.

The UK’s wet winter – it is still raining – may seem like nothing compared with, say, Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005 or last November’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, but it has prompted talk of a crisis as politicians and administrators blame each other for failing to protect communities. There is much debate about the impact of climate change and whether some areas should be left to nature rather than defended.

Other parts of southern England are feeling the effects, too: thousands of homes along the river Thames were threatened on Monday as flood waters rose. But the Somerset Levels, a low-lying area in the southwest, has been under water for six weeks. Farmers have lambasted the government’s Environment Agency for leaving them vulnerable by failing to dredge rivers. In Cornwall and west Devon, businesses are aghast at the prospect of being cut off by rail for at least six weeks after part of the coastal railway, built in the 19th century by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was washed away. England’s southwest is a much-loved area where many people take their holidays, yet the remoter parts face an economic struggle.

This is a largely rural region but it can claim a role in the industrial revolution. It was by landing at Torbay, in Devon, that the Protestant William of Orange began the so-called glorious revolution in 1688, ushering in an economically liberal era of parliamentary government that allowed innovations to win commercial funding. Later, the great engineer Brunel built the Great Western Railway as well as steamships, bridges and tunnels.

The southwest is famous for the likes of Cheddar cheese, the Cornish language, cider, Stonehenge, Dartmoor, the legends of King Arthur and Glastonbury Tor, to which some believe the Holy Grail was brought. It is a disparate region with a huge coastline: the northern part of Gloucestershire is as close to the Scottish border as it is to the tip of Cornwall.

The most prosperous parts are in the north and east, best connected to London: Bristol, with its large aerospace sector; the high-tech belts around the M4 motorway in Wiltshire and M5 in Gloucestershire; and east Dorset. Cornwall, isolated and with weak transport links, remains one of the UK’s poorest areas despite receiving hundreds of millions of pounds in EU regional aid since 2000.

In Cornwall and Devon there is soreness that the government is planning the £50bn High Speed 2 north-south railway line but not prepared to spend a few tens or hundreds of millions to make their rail service more resilient, let alone meet longstanding demands to extend the M5 west of Exeter. I am not sure that these things are mutually exclusive, but the region deserves a fair hearing.

If Scotland goes

Opinion polls still point to a victory for the No side in Scotland’s referendum on independence on September 18, but there is much fascination in what a Yes vote might mean, as explored in the Financial Times’ series “If Scotland Goes”.

Here is an intriguing “what if” scenario suggested by Kenny Farquharson, deputy editor of the newspaper Scotland on Sunday: Scotland votes Yes to independence this autumn; next May, Labour’s Ed Miliband wins the UK general election with a tiny majority; come independence day – which the Scottish government hopes will be March 24 2016 – Scottish MPs, including the large Labour contingent, leave the Westminster parliament and Mr Miliband finds himself out of office.

In need of cheer

The UK’s weeks of wind and rain have been so wearing that Humboldt penguins at Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary in North Yorkshire have been given antidepressants. “They are thoroughly fed-up and miserable, much like the rest of us,” said a curator.

brian.groom@ft.com
Twitter: @GroomB

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