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Politics UK Floods 2015

Published on December 12th, 2015 | by Eleanor Newis
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Shelter from the Storm

It is rare, in the usually mild and rainy environment of Britain, that we encounter a storm so violent it is deemed worthy of naming. Storm Desmond (it is unconfirmed whether the storm is named after Desmond Tutu, Carrington, or indeed Dekker), has ravaged Cumbria and Lancashire and caused an estimated £500 million of damage. Now, British weather seems famed across the world for being sort of repetitively grey and uninteresting. The media then, it has to be said, have been rather having a field day: the Belfast Telegraph did a whole article on sandbags; the BBC produced a video entitled “What is the best way to do a fireman’s lift?” (This included such revelations as “if it’s an emergency situation you have to get them away quick”, and concluded the best way was “dragging them along the floor”). And, of course, there was The Independent’s heart warming footage of Jeremy Corbyn singing “Happy Birthday” yesterday to a woman in Cockermouth. But, after David Cameron’s emergency Cobra meeting, and George Osborne’s pledge to match the amount donated to the fundraising initiative launched for the repairs, what have we really learned about the British government’s response to the floods?

Firstly, we have learned that they have not learned. Last year, in February 2014, the UK was seriously battered by winter storms which caused massive coastal damage, and flooded places such as Devon, Somerset, Cornwall and the Thames Valley. The Met Office told us this was the rainiest December to January since records began in 1876. A main railway line (to Cornwall and West Devon) was broken; on 5th February 2014 the seawall was also breached at Dawlish; 600 houses and 17, 000 acres of agricultural land were flooded; the village of Thorney was largely abandoned and Muchelney became near impossible to get to. Back then, David Cameron told us “lessons will be learnt”, which many hoped referred to the government rethinking its cutting of flood defences and barriers. However, the panic we are seeing in the North of England currently rather belies this statement.

Someone else sceptical of the Tories’ flood response is Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader (don’t worry, I always forget who is as well), who’s constituency of Westmoreland and Lonsdale in Cumbria has been heavily hit by Storm Desmond. His claims that almost 300 flood schemes have been cut since 2010 originate from documentation from the Environment Agency in 2012; the figures are actually that 294 projects with planned funding in 2010 had not been given money. Of course, we all remember the 2010 rhetoric on austerity, and of course we were all “in it together”, but it must now be a little awkward for Cameron that one of these plans was for the River Kent, in Kendal – a place where police attempted this week to find the body of a pensioner thought to have been washed away. Other plans were for Leeds (£58 million) Thirsk (£6 million) and Ipswich (£12 million for a tidal barrier). The project for the River Kent would have actually cost (an embarrassingly, relatively small) £325, 000. Of course, the problem with Farron’s data is that it is old: since then, the UK has had to step up after the 2014 floods and according to the Deparment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the coalition spent £3.2 billion over the last parliament on flood defences.

However, though it is unclear whether any of the cancelled schemes would have saved any of the 2, 000 homes and business currently under water, Environment Secretary Liz Truss has still promised (this time for real) to “learn the lessons”. (She has either not read the previous year’s media statements, or she is more into irony than I thought MPs could be.) Truss did however say that flood defences had protected up to 8, 000 homes; however, I would posit the idea that it may be possible these defences were built years ago, and did not actually constitute any action by the government, or indeed any spending. Now, this is not a particularly partisan issue: the floods in 2005 caused terrible hardship, and were followed by more in 2007. The Labour government also promised to do more to protect vulnerable areas from heavy rainfall and storms. The problem is not so much about austerity, or right and left: the problem can be summed up in one word uttered by Truss in her statement, and this word is “unprecedented”. She called Storm Desmond an “unprecedented event”. Now, as the Environment Secretary, you would expect her to have a few more climate change wits about her: this is not an unprecedented event. In fact, not only was extreme weather predicted to increase by scientists, but she even had (very, very literally) a precedent. Every flood since 2005 would be the precedent, Ms. Truss that you are looking for.

Back in October, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) told the government action on flood defences was needed; the June report on the government’s climate change policy said floods were their biggest failing, saying “plans and policies, or progress in addressing vulnerabilities, are lacking.” The CCC recommended “a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk” and was apparently told it “would not be appropriate at this time.” If not now, then when? In Carlisle, two brothers were interviewed by the BBC. They are 10 and 12 years old, and one of them simply said “I didn’t think it would be this bad.” Though the fundraising has now reached over £600, 000, and the government has promised money, successive governments have not seemed to take this problem seriously. For, it is not just a problem of money, of insurance and seawalls: it is a problem of people. As the same places are hit multiple times by extreme weather – some people this year had only just rebuilt their homes after 2009 – there will be young people whose homes seem less permanent each year. Additionally, 36 schools in Cumbria had to close this year, two of them not expected to open at all until January. One problem with government plans on flooding is that they only address the amount of money allocated, not what will be done with it.

Of course, I am not saying all the community action, the volunteering and the first response teams are anything other than wonderful. I am however saying that the UK relies too much on them: we see our island as one of mild, rainy, boring weather, and extreme weather always therefore seems unprecedented. It is not so, and just as the damage is not unprecedented it is not inevitable. George Osborne’s pledge to spend up to £50 million on rebuilding these communities is a start – but it needs to be spent wisely. Westminster and local authorities alike should remember that if they allow young people to be hit worst by this – as they have been by the economic crisis – they are going to cause more lasting damage than the floods themselves. I realise this is the second time in a few months I’ve quoted Bob Dylan, but he does tend to talk sense (in his early albums at least), and I would suggest David Cameron “try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm”. I’d also suggest he observe that “the road was full of mud” in 2014 and maybe he should be the first Prime Minister to unveil a proper plan for tackling flooding, and rebuilding young people’s lives: that maybe, I suppose, he should say “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

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