Tag Archives: governance

Après le deluge: the UK winter storms of 2013–14

By Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway University of London

Spurn Head on the Humber being broken by the December 2013 Storm Surge Photo Credit: Environment Agency (reproduced with permission)

Spurn Head on the Humber being broken by the December 2013 Storm Surge Photo Credit: Environment Agency (reproduced with permission)

The UK winter floods of 2013-14 were unquestionably severe caused by winter storms that brought with them record levels of rainfall and long standing flooding to southern England, most notably the Somerset Levels. Other parts of the UK were also affected, coastal towns in Wales were battered by stormy weather and parts of the Scotland also recorded some of the highest levels of rainfall ever recorded. Political leaders of all the main parties were swift to visit affected areas, and the government organization responsible for flood management the Environment Agency and its embattled chief Lord Smith endured a barrage of criticism for late and or inadequate flood preparation, warnings and responsiveness. For weeks, stories and images of the flood and its impact on communities and infrastructure filled the airwaves. Some communities were affectively cut off while others lost their homes and possessions. The insurance industry estimated that the cost of the flooding exceeded £1 billion but it was lower than the estimated cost of the 2007 summer floods, which were put at over £3 billion.

As a recent themed section on the UK winter floods 2013-4 published in The Geographical Journal argues, there is a great deal more analytical work to be done in terms of how we make sense of such extreme events and what we might learn in the aftermath. One noticeable element in the 2013-4 winter storms was the presence of social media and the role that tweeting and Facebook played in raising flood awareness (#floodaware #thinkdontsink) and the sharing of images and stories relating to the flooding. This autumn the Environment Agency has taken again to social media to warn audiences about flood risk and prevention measures. Citizens, in potentially affected areas, are encouraged to check the real time mapping and monitoring of rivers and coastlines.

Combining historical and cultural geographers with fluvial geographers and hydrological modellers, the themed section ruminates on the social, economic, political and physical geographies of the flooding and the storm surges. It poses questions not only about how flooding is understood (both scientifically and culturally) but also how it impacts on communities and landscapes, some of whom enjoyed greater publicity than others. Campaigners for the affected Somerset Levels were particularly successful in generating media attention, as were home-owners and businesses along the River Thames. Flood geographers, as we might term it, are also in the thick of things when it comes to flood forecasting and advising agencies on how government and communities should prepare in the future for such extreme events. Preparedness combined with individual and communal resilience have been championed as indispensable and perhaps social media provided a resource of sorts for such resilience as people shared advice and experiences of flooding.

But as our themed section also shows that rivers including flood plains are complex and lively spaces. They vary in terms of flood risk vulnerability and this is as much to do with their materiality as it is due to historic and contemporary patterns of human occupation. For centuries, humans have intervened in such environments and introduced flood embanking, channel dredging, and manipulated the volume and flow speed of rivers. Moreover coastal environments have experienced a patchwork of interventions from hard to soft forms of coastal engineering. We have, over the years, sought to intervene in order to mitigate, and even prevent unwelcome futures.

Lets hope if severe winter storms affect the UK again in 2014-5 we will be able to conclude that we are somewhat wiser as a consequence of our experiences in the winter of 2013-4.

About the author: Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics within the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. Klaus is also the Editor of The Geography Journal.

The Geographical Journal themed section in full:

books_icon Dodds, K. (2014), Après le deluge: the UK winter storms of 2013–14. The Geographical Journal, 180: 294–296. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12126

books_icon Thorne, C. (2014), Geographies of UK flooding in 2013/4. The Geographical Journal, 180: 297–309. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12122 (open access)

books_icon Stephens, E. and Cloke, H. (2014), Improving flood forecasts for better flood preparedness in the UK (and beyond). The Geographical Journal, 180: 310–316. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12103

books_icon Lewin, J. (2014), The English floodplain. The Geographical Journal, 180: 317–325. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12093

books_icon McEwen, L., Jones, O. and Robertson, I. (2014), ‘A glorious time?’ Some reflections on flooding in the Somerset Levels. The Geographical Journal, 180: 326–337. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12125

books_icon Clout, H. (2014), Reflections on The draining of the Somerset Levels. The Geographical Journal, 180: 338–341. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12088

Other references:

60-world2 Ugwumandu J (2014) Severe winter weather to cost UK insurers £1.1bn, says ABI The Actuary, 13 March 2014

60-world2 Gov.uk (2014) Check flood warnings and river levels  

How new is the new openness?

By Helen Pallett

Neon_Open_Sign

Image credit: By Aaron Pruzaniec

It seems that openness is in the air. Open access and open data have been the hot topics of the last few years in conversations in academia and are increasingly the subjects of broader societal debate, and open government and open policy have recently moved swiftly up the political agenda in the UK. From October 31st to November 1st the British Government hosted the annual summit of the Open Government Partnership, an international platform supporting reformers aiming to make governments more open and accountable to their citizens. The London summit was significant in that it demonstrated commitment to the principles of openness from some parts of the higher echelons of the Government, and some international actors such as the chief innovation officer for the World Bank. Most notably, Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude has been at particular pains to emphasise the ambition and sincerity of his message of transparency and openness (for example see this video).

There is also a distinctly geographical aspect to this new openness as Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski have argued in a recent paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Elwood and Leszczynski highlight the diversity of new spatial media available – from Google Earth, to twitter’s GeoAPI and location based social network apps like Foursquare. These media combine open and crowd sourced data with geographic information techniques and technologies, with the potential to enhance the abilities of activities, civic, grassroots, indigenous and other marginalised groups to challenge government actors and hold them to account. Far from being add-ons to a plethora of existing techniques available to activists and others, the authors argue that spatial media have the potential to advance alternative strategies for establishing the authority of knowledge claims, through for example, structuring visual experience, providing immediate and experiential cartographic representations, and through asserting credibility through mutual witnessing between peers and transparency of methods.

But an earlier paper from the same journal exploring a different kind of democratic innovation counsels us to be more cautious in our heralding of the success and potential of the ‘new openness’. In 1999 Rob Imrie and Mike Raco examined the promise of and assumptions around what was then being called the new local government in the UK. The conventional wisdom around these developments at the time, with powers being increasingly being moved from local government to the central government, was that the older form of governance with a stronger local government had been more open and democratically accountable, whilst increasingly geographically centralised governance sought to close off debate. Through an exploration of how these governance changes were playing out in two UK cities, Imrie and Raco actually found a diversity of democratic practices at play, many of which showed strong continuities with what was characterised as the old governance. Their point, something which I think is more broadly applicable to other changes in democratic practice, was not to take announcements of change and newness at face value; not to be swept away by the hype and discursive contestation around a new policy initiative without first taking a closer look at the tapestry of democratic and policy practices being enacted around it.

With respect to the ‘new openness’ of open government, open policy and the rest, this suggests that geographers need not only to be aware of opportunities to support such initiatives by contributing to debates and refining practices, as Elwood and Leszczynski argue, but also to empirically investigate these claims to newness. Which previous democratic practices do these approaches to open government transform or uphold? Alongside high profile demonstrations of openness in government, can we also find examples where opportunities for openness are ignored, or even actively obscured? Does a focus purely on openness risk eclipsing existing practices which are being exploited by civil society actors and others for democratic ends? Through this we can create a richer picture of democratic change and continuity in the UK, and also help to hold government actors to account.

books_icon Rob Imrie & Mike Raco 1999 How New is the New Local Governance? Lessons from the United KingdomTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24: 45-63

books_icon Sarah Elwood & Agnieska Leszczynski 2012 New spatial media, new knowledge politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38: 544-559

60-world2 Open government: a chance to revolutionise the relationship between citizens and their leaders Guardian, November 7

60-world2 Francis Maude: ‘Transparency is not a feelgood accessory’ (video) Guardian, November 5

Pirates of the Web or the Waves: A Conundrum of Governance

by Jen Turner

At the end of October, The Finnish Supreme Court rejected a case from an Internet Service Provider (ISP) fighting an enforced ban of file-sharing website The Pirate Bay.  The BBC reported that the ruling signaled the end of a long court battle between ISP Elisa and copyright bodies in the country.  The Pirate Bay, which offers links to pirated content, has caused controversy in other areas too.  The website is now also banned in the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy.

However, internet rights groups say the bans represent a worrying rise in levels of net censorship – a concern which is shaped by changes in the management of the World Wide Web. Control of the internet and its logistical arrangements stems from agreements made under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialist UN agency that dates back to 1865.  Now, the ITU is suggesting new proposals which would mean internet companies like Google paying generous fees to local telecoms companies.  These plans would disrupt the balance between the US internet giants and telecom firms across the world.  Administration and organisation of the internet has been dominated by the US since Arpanet, the precursor to the modern internet, was established between four US universities in 1969, and a handful of US-controlled authorities followed.

Google has battled hard in campaigns surrounding the open web and the media-genic issues of free speech and-anti censorship that other ITU proposals allude to. However, as Jemima Kiss reports, for a company worth £150bn, taxes to telecom firms would be payable on every interaction with its 700 million or so daily users.    Perhaps this challenge to Western dominance is an important one, raising issues about how these seemingly placeless entities are controlled.

In similar vein, Kimberley Peters’ recent article in Area explores governance outside of territorial boundaries in political discussion of the geographies of the sea.  Using the example of offshore broadcasting stations such as Radio Caroline, Peters explains the ramifications that ‘pirate’ stations had on the governance of sea-space.  By explaining actions carried out within Britain’s borders, and the international space of the ‘high seas’, this paper recognises how this response challenged Britain’s long-held ideology of maritime freedom.

If we consider both the web and the waves in light of their non-territorial character, we can find similarities in the challenges for regulating them – acknowledging the conundrum for governing these kinds of spaces.

Kimberley Peters, 2011, Sinking the radio ‘pirates’: exploring British strategies of governance in the North Sea, 1964–1991Area 43 281-287

Jemima Kiss, Who controls the internet?The Guardian, 17 October 2012 

Pirate Bay appeal is rejected by Finnish supreme court, BBC News Technology, 30 October 2012

Where’s Climate Change Gone?

By Martin Mahony

MEC's green roof among others by sookie (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Many commentators on the current US presidential election campaigns have noted – or bemoaned – a seeming conspiracy of silence when it comes to climate change. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney seem keen to make the issue a centrepiece of their respective campaigns, regardless of where they seem to stand on the question of how to deal climate change, or indeed whether it’s a problem at all.

In the UK, critics of the Conservative-led coalition government have been keen to point out that David Cameron’s pledge to lead the “greenest government ever” is starting to sound rather hollow. Like in the US, climate change barely figures on the national political agenda. Perhaps this could be attributed to the current primacy of economic and fiscal issues in political debate. However, it may also be indicative of a broader trend which has seen climate change governance re-scaled away from the nation-state and international negotiations, towards new networks of cities, municipalities and regional governments.

As illustrated by Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castán Broto in a recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, a variety of governmental practices have emerged at the urban scale which seek to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. Through diverse social and technical practices, “climate change experiments” have been enacted which have positioned mitigation and adaptation nearer to the centre of rationales for urban transition and renewal. However, far from being simply the spill-over effects of a governance system which lacks the capacity to address climate change in a formal and coherent manner, these new political spaces highlight the complex processes by which new norms and goals circulate in practice through social and technical interventions in the urban fabric.

The kind of interventions which Bulkeley and Broto discuss include formal policy measures such as the establishment of carbon markets, grassroots movements such as ‘Transition Towns’, and the development of new architectural forms which respond to the needs of energy efficiency. While such initiatives are often dismissed as being insufficient responses to the scale of the climate change challenge, Bulkeley and Broto suggest in their exciting new research agenda that analysts need to engage more seriously with the growing number of processes by which climate change is being responded to in urban settings. While climate change may have disappeared from our national political debates, it is increasingly a potent motivator of political action in our cities.

 Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castán Broto, 2012, Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate changeTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00535.x

 The 2012 election’s only bipartisan consensus: not to talk climate changeThe Guardian

Area Content Alert: Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2012)

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Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Content Alert: Volume 37, Issue 1 (January 2012)

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Geography Compass Content Alert: Volume 5, Issue 9 (September 2011)

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