Floods, government inadequacy and the just's umbrella

By Jill Segger
January 4, 2016

It seemed a perfect illustration of the government's inadequacy in the face of the northern floods. The Floods Minister Rory Stewart and the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin had been due to meet residents of Soulby and Pooley Bridge in Cumbria to discuss efforts to rebuild the local community following the recent floods.

But this morning (4 January), the ministers and their entourage apparently found themselves, already 20 minutes late, on the wrong side of the collapsed bridge over the River Eamont. The phrase “a far away country of which we know nothing” comes to mind.

From south Yorkshire to the Borders and beyond, whole communities have been devastated by the floods which began in December and are still ongoing. Thousands have been flooded out of their homes, roads and bridges have washed away, businesses are ruined. The government's response has been weak and deceitful. “Unprecedented” is the word on every ministerial tongue when referring to the amount of rain which has fallen over this distressful swathe of the country.

Do not be deceived by this piece of weaselry. It means only 'more than fell last time you were flooded out'. It does not mean unforeseen, nor does it place these desperately difficult events beyond the amelioration of foresight and investment.

In its statutory report earlier in 2015, the government's own climate change advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), warned that provision for dealing with floods from extreme weather was inadequate: “Plans and policies, or progress in addressing vulnerabilities, are lacking”.

The CCC also informed the government that “residual” flood risk, meaning that which results from extreme weather events that cannot be prevented by normal flood defences, was increasing. It recommended that the government should “develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk.”

In October, just two months before Storm Desmond wrought such destruction in Cumbria, the government responded to the CCC: “We believe that a strategy to address future residual risk would not be appropriate at this time.”

The government also ignored warnings of the vulnerability of Leeds, putting funding a flood defence for the city on hold in 2011. Kendal was treated in a similarly cavalier manner.

Despite David Cameron's claims to the contrary, the Department for Environment’s own figures show the annual spending on flood and coastal erosion defences were cut from £670 million in 2010 -11 to £573 million in 2011 -12. Adjusting for inflation, this is a cut of 15 per cent in a single year.

The accountancy firm KPMG have put the total cost of the flooding to date at £5 billion. But the Chancellor's obsession with eradicating the deficit has extracted a terrible price in more than the financial sense. It has exposed the moral and pragmatic failure of slashing the investment in services upon which decent and secure living depends. It fails to acknowledge that such investment will pay for itself many times over in reducing future economic damage and human distress. And worst of all, it poses the possibility that in pursuit of the idiocy of a mandatory budget surplus, a future government might again cut flood prevention and neglect effective management of the environment.

For the environmental short-termism which has contributed so much to the present situation cannot be pushed aside nor subject to a one-size-fits-all solution, however much that might suit the government's agenda. The answer does not lie in dredging rivers into ever deeper and more straightened courses versus upland re-wilding, meanders and oxbows, but in a considered combination of these actions.

The policy decisions of the “greenest government ever” also speak louder than its words. The scrapping of a £1 billion investment in carbon capture and storage, the cutting of subsidies for offshore wind farms and their scrapping onshore, the forcing through of fracking applications against the wishes of local authorities and local communities – these will all have have a significant impact on climate change. The UK government has the greatest gap between current renewable energy usage and 2020 targets of any EU country. It really will have to expand its exculpatory lexicon beyond 'unprecedented' when speaking of climate-related disasters.

And George Osborne could do well to avoid his favourite watery metaphor of “fixing the roof when the sun is shining” in future. The words of Victorian judge Charles Bowen might serve him better:

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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