‘Money is no object in this relief effort’. So the Prime Minister assures us. But money is never far below the surface in discussions about priorities. The Environment Agency has explained that Treasury rules require an 8:1 ratio of benefits to costs, so flood defences will tend to protect high value properties – those of the rich – ahead of low value ones. Therefore, if the average house price in Surrey (£419,957) is over twice that in Somerset (£205,141), Surrey will qualify for spending on flood defences twice as soon, even though the mayhem and the misery may be exactly the same. The reason why the average house price in Surrey is higher is centuries of public spending in and around the capital of the British unitary state. Verily, unto them that hath shall be given.
For economists, disasters are almost as good a driver of growth as wars. The more ruined carpets and furniture there are, the more replacements will be ordered. There are concerns about looting too, though for economists crime is almost as good a driver of growth as.... And the public health issues give a whole new meaning to Cameron’s goal of ‘getting rid of all the green crap’. Free market fundamentalists love a good epidemic. State action to stop one would be unspeakably altruistic and that would never do.
According to the BBC earlier this week, Thames Water has faced sustained criticism from its customers in the Lower Thames Valley for not knowing where its sewerage assets are located or how to protect electronic control systems from the floodwaters. If that’s true, it’s no great surprise. Private Eye this month reported that Thames Water – which manages its tax affairs from the Cayman Islands – has put away nothing for a rainy day. Since 2000, it has paid out £3.6 billion to its (now largely foreign) shareholders. A normal company earning a commercial rate of return on capital invested? Or a cash-sucking parasite allowed to exploit a natural monopoly for profit, with no corresponding requirement for competence?
Is the blame game fair? Well, yes. On 5th February, the website of the (London) Guardian published a map showing the exceptional rainfall recorded in the Upper Thames Valley in January. Newbury MP and former environment minister, Richard Benyon, tweeted that he feared the flooding in the Lambourn Valley was reaching levels not seen since 2007. It takes no great scientific ability to work out that the water would within the week be overflowing the banks of the Thames and seeping through the chalk and gravel into east Berkshire towns and villages. Long enough to at least organise the filling and distribution of sandbags, one would think. Instead, the general feeling is one of abandonment. The Morning Star reported on Thursday that Environment Agency staff, doing their best to help, had been withdrawn from some areas in the face of public hostility directed at the one contact point with authority that actually ventured out. This is the Agency still faced with losing hundreds of staff to Cameron’s austerity drive. ‘Money no object’?
It’s entirely understandable that communities are pulling together to find their own self-reliant ways through current difficulties. Small local councils, their funding cut to the bone, are in no position to respond. Christchurch, in Hampshire, has been told off by the London regime for charging for sandbags. Christchurch does not have huge resources. London does. What else is Christchurch supposed to do? Where is the national response that will take the strain off extremely finite local budgets? And why do the Tories always expect things that benefit them to be provided free, while others are expected to pay for items no less necessary? It’s cruel but fair that those who wanted the cuts to collective provision should be among those to suffer the consequences. It's just such a shame others have to suffer too.
We have argued before that a community-benefit State in Wessex does not need an army. It needs a regional defence capability that can protect us from the full range of threats we now collectively face, and will continue to face into an ecologically much harsher future, very few of which bear any relation to conventional military objectives. Food, water, power, transport. Nothing is actually as secure as it’s been made to look. So where’s the Territorial Army when it’s needed in Wessex? Filling bodybags rather than sandbags, in parts of the world where it has no business to be.
Commentators are beginning to ask whether this year’s weather will change British politics. It ought to, as communities come to recognise a shared sense of being abandoned by the State they pay to protect them. Their reaction will determine its future. For years we have seen politicians, in thrall to the City, treat the environment as something that can safely be ignored, certainly as less important than the Alice-in-Wonderland world of high finance, the world of make-believe money. Damaging the real, natural world in order to sustain the illusion of that imaginary, numerical world has become what they do, along with paring public services to the point where they collapse in a real emergency.
The London parties may not get away with it much longer. Ecology is bigger than economics. From having no choice but to build on floodplains, to accommodate an ever-rising population, to having no choice but to build ever more expensive defences, to keep the houses dry, all the sums are going to have to be reworked. Someone is going to end up paying and it won’t necessarily be those with the greatest ability to pay, nor the greatest reason to be made to. It’s very traditional that the victims of natural disasters (like floods) or social disasters (like riots) receive more sympathy than the victims of economic disasters (like unemployment) but it’s at times like these that folk begin to ask why these distinctions are made.
Since the London regime lacks the will to think long-term, and therefore collectively, it needs to give way to those who can. We’ve bailed out the banks, for no good reason; now we’re bailing out flooded households and businesses that also took one risk too many (a risk increased, through no fault of theirs, by building and other land use changes upstream). We’d be better off bailing out altogether from a failed system and co-operating regionally to promote sustainable solutions.
Underpinning our thought-through actions there needs to be a lot more respect for science. Yet on Thursday, the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey called for the Government to take on nature instead of working with it. Farmers and their representatives, who have always understood far less about holistic water management than they pretend, would have us believe there’s a townie conspiracy to put wildlife ahead of their profits. Angry folk wanting something done, and politicians wanting to be seen to be doing it, even where it’s counter-productive, are joining the worldwide war on science. As with climate change, it’s infantile to believe that rejecting the facts will alter them. In the absence of responsible politicians willing to explain those facts, it’s not unlikely that the long tradition of effigy burning on the Levels will start up again soon.
Politicians need to be standing up for science, not giving in to sectional interests. In 2010 Parliament passed the Flood & Water Management Act. It set up a process for requiring sustainable drainage systems to be installed in new developments. Scared of the building industry, the Coalition has still not implemented those provisions. Since the floods of 2007 there has been a string of reports spelling out what needs to be done. The result? Legislation that has been emasculated, resources that have been withheld.
Instead of building resilience, a London regime that is clearly nothing but the City’s glove puppet has gone on imposing more and more homes on reluctant communities and so added more and more to the problem. We cannot expect its conversion to sanity, now or ever. And so it follows that Wessex, along with every other region of England, must seek its own answers and then take back the power to put them into practice.