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The Floods and the Cuts

29th December 2015

The Floods and the Cuts

By Mick Brooks

Apart from the heartbreak, the present floods have caused a cool £5 billion in damage so far, and the clean-up may end up costing a lot more.
Politicians smugly declare after the waters have risen, “This is a once in a lifetime event.” Well there are places in Britain that have endured floods in 2007, the winter of 2013-4, and again now in December 2015.

The reason for the long term change in climate conditions is global warming, which is in part caused by human activity such as emitting carbon into the atmosphere. We have been warned that this climate change is likely to produce extreme weather events - in Britain most likely in the form of floods.
Every time there is flooding the powers that be assure us that they have learned the lessons. And it seems they never do. Yet the Pitt Review after the 2007 inundation established that we needed a systematic strengthening of our flood defences.

So what was one of the first things the Tory dominated coalition did on taking office in 2010? They cut the flood defence budget by 27% as part of the cuts. By the time of the summer floods of 2012 300 projects, such as plans for the defence of Kendal and Leeds, were in tatters. Now we see the consequences.
The Department of the Environment under Owen Paterson in 2013 also cut its staff working on the problem of how to cope with climate change problems from 38 to 6. How on earth was a climate change denier put in charge in the first place?

It is true that the 2012 floods provoked a panic-stricken surge of £270m in emergency funding from the government. Cameron uses figure this to try to show that the Tories have not let people’s homes and livelihoods go to ruin in the relentless drive to austerity. But the steady, regular spending on the upkeep and improvement of the flood defences is what really matters. That has been ruthlessly driven down as part of the cuts. For the Tories prevention of flooding is much less important than cutting corporation tax for big business and the top rate of income tax for the rich.

The National Audit Office reported in November 2014 that £1 spent on defences will save £10 on flood damage. The Tory cuts are literally penny wise, pound foolish. And the NAO added in their report, “Ad hoc emergency spending is less good value then sustained maintenance.” Of course – prevention is better than cure.
That is precisely what John McDonnell is arguing for. The case for planning our flood defences for the long term, not just reacting when it’s too late, is urgent and unanswerable.

As Innes Thomson, former flood chief at the Environment Agency put it:
“If we were to spend more just maintaining and managing water levels, it would be money well spent…If we spent a slug of money now cleaning up rivers, it would help… I think we are talking about tens of millions of pounds. Now is an opportunity to reconsider where we spend our money.”

The cuts have had other devastating consequences for the work of flood relief. As ever, the firefighters have played a sterling role in rescuing people and their possessions, and taking them to a place of safety. As Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, has pointed out the continuing closure of fire stations has made the rescue work so much more difficult.

The floods are not just a natural disaster. In part they are a consequence of Tory policies.

By the way, a Happy New Year to all our supporters – and keep fighting to kick the Tories out!

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