As the rain continues to fall and the storm winds continue to blow, in what has proved to be the wettest winter for decades, the Tories have continued to shout and bluster in the face of a crisis to which they can find no solution. Felix Lighter looks at the floods in Britain, which are exposing the hypocrisy of the Tory Coalition and the tensions in society.
As the rain continues to fall and the storm winds continue to blow, in what has proved to be the wettest winter for decades, the Tories have continued to shout and bluster in the face of a crisis to which they can find no solution.
More and more parts of the country have succumbed to flooding, travel disruption and general chaos as winter marches on. David Cameron has been reduced to making panic statement after panic statement in an attempt to stem the floodtide of criticism. When it was announced by experts that it was a case now of “Countryside or Towns” in the fight against the rising water levels, Cameron must have had a nasty shock. The Cobra Committee has met almost daily to give the impression that action is being taken.
Underfunded and ill prepared
The worst flooding has been based in those rural areas which always tend to vote Tory or Liberal Democrat. The people here have carried on believing that austerity was for other people in inner cities far away. Now they can see the truth and the Coalition can see its votes disappearing under water.
Despite rescue authorities, Environment Agency (EA) staff and many other services and local authorities working non-stop night and day to salvage the situation, against terrible odds, the truth is that they have been left underfunded and ill prepared to deal with such a situation. Many people have had to ignore warnings to leave home because they have nowhere to go. They have been thrust from relative normality into the equivalent of a war zone in just a matter of days, just as the people of New Orleans were when Hurricane Katrina struck the US a decade ago.
For years now, scientists and Met Office experts have been warning of the likely consequences of climate change for the UK. The government, including the current Environment Minister, a known climate change denier, largely ignored this. The danger of winter storms, tidal flooding and general flooding in certain parts of the country was flagged up even before this winter.
The first storms hit back in October – the Met Office said they would not be the last. Over Christmas, we saw considerable damage in parts of the UK, due to the stormy weather, with many homes without power for days on end over the so-called festive season. At the time people warned that the power companies, more concerned with profits than providing support, were not up to the job.
As the rain fell through January and into February, the government just tried to ignore the situation, gambling on something coming up. What came up were the water levels, breaching defences and exposing those areas most at risk including Somerset and the South-West. Because of the nature of this area, with parts below sea level and always under threat from rivers and the power of the sea, many were warning of what might occur.
Pickles in a pickle
As the crisis became more visible, the government started to panic. Assorted ministers made flying visits to the flood areas where locals roundly attacked them. People have complained that other areas of the country, now affected by the weather, are being ignored. Taking advantage of the Environment Minister’s sudden hospitalisation, his replacement, Eric Pickles, looked around for an easy target to put the blame on. He chose the Environment Agency (EA). After a series of barely-disguised attacks on the EA and its leadership, he ended up making the least-believable “unreserved” apology in history, noting that he was sorry that the government believed the EA over river-dredging, etc. The EA struck back with civil servants complaining about Pickles and his behaviour and the Environment minister ended up phoning Cameron from his sickbed to get the PM to pull back his attack dog, not least since he would have to work with and rely on the EA after all this was over, assuming he still has his job. Certainly he must have been aware that EA staff were close to open revolt over this.
After Pickles started his series of attacks on the Environment Agency, police had to advise EA staff to withdraw from Wraysbury after they came under attack from angry locals whipped up by Pickles’ statements. As GMB union officer Justin Bowden later explained:
“This report of hostility from the residents on the Thames is a direct result of the irresponsible attack by Eric Pickles and others on the EA. His incitement has led to the very people on the frontline who are actually helping to alleviate the situation bearing the brunt of people’s frustrations.”
In truth, the situation with the Environment Agency has acted as a symbol of the real state of affairs. The EA itself has had to endure a real-term cut of 27% in funding since the Coalition came to power in 2010. Despite repeated questions, Cameron has refused to state whether the proposed 1,700 job cuts at the EA will still go ahead. According to the GMB union:
“The facts on budget cuts are stubborn things. In 2009-10 total grants to the Environment Agency were £846.7m. For 2010-11 they were cut to £799.6m, for 2011-12 they were cut to £749.5m, in 2012-13 there were further cuts to £723m. There was a further cut of £14m for this year. This is a reduction of 16% and during this period inflation has increased by 11%. In real terms the grant has been cut by more than a quarter. That is before the latest 10% hack at the budget for 2014-15 announced by Osborne last summer.”
This grim situation can be repeated for all the other emergency and support services without exception.
“Money is no object”…when votes are under threat
Cameron has now had to state that “money is no object” in relation to giving support and compensation (ignoring another Tory who said that there would be “no blank cheque”) and generally showing that when it comes to a crisis the private sector is nowhere to be seen and it is the state which has to be relied on.
Cameron stated that Britain was a wealthy country and could afford the necessary expenditure – a statement which rather surprised all those people who had believed that the UK could no longer afford decent hospitals, schools, adequate benefit support and so on. Austerity is quickly forgotten when votes are under threat.
Of course, all this extra cash will have to be drawn from funding for other public services at some point, as the promised money is not extra money, but will simply be taken from other areas of spending. According to the Guardian newspaper, the Coalition has been cutting flood defence expenditure by almost £100 million a year since taking power, with the cancellation of a number of key projects which, had they gone ahead, would have directly impacted on some of the worst affected areas.
In early December, it was mainly the north of the country that was hit by high winds and flooding, which caused widespread damage, leaving many people without power and killing two. But this did not get the same level of publicity – or the same promises of unlimited funding – as was the case with the recent flooding along the Thames.
This has also led to questioning among many in the north as to the reasons for the different reaction on the part of the government, prompting some to pose whether it was to do with the fact that in the north there are not so many Tory seats! Even “natural” disasters such as this have the power to highlight class divisions, as people become aware of the fact that the Tories are only concerned with electioneering when people actually need real help.
Decades of cuts and neglect
Naturally, many experts have commented that many of the problems with providing support and building defences in advance of such crises have been caused by decades of cuts in government funding. Sea defences have been left without repair thanks to cuts in local government and specialist services. River flooding has become almost an annual event in some areas with little action being taken. The authorities were all gambling on nothing going wrong. The same could be said of the power and rail companies who have all been caught out by the crisis despite repeated warnings.
Much of the talk has been about river dredging. Although this can work in some cases, in the main the EA has warned against this because it does not get rid of the water just pushes it somewhere else, only faster and more dangerously. The sort of expenditure required to provide a proper defence against flooding and damage by the sea is clearly way beyond the willing means of a capitalist system, which prefers to look for quick profits. Many of the buildings now flooded were built by firms that knew the risks but chose to ignore them because the profits from sales to people wanting a home were too great to ignore. The insurance firms have also sat back and talked of raising premiums to cover the payouts they cannot avoid making.
When the EA presented a long-term plan on dealing with the danger of flooding some years ago involving an outlay of £300 million, they were told there was no money available. Starting to try and act now is just too late. The UK with its underfunded and crumbling infrastructure, thanks to decades of cuts and privatisations, has been exposed as totally lacking.
The sort of fundamental repair and protection work now needed will require a socialist plan based on the mobilisation of the whole resources of society that will need to be removed from capitalist hands. This crisis has exposed the complete rottenness of capitalist Britain and has meant many have paid a very high price with homes and possessions lost. The Tories and their system should in turn pay a higher price, starting at the next elections.