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Cuts and privatisation threaten new floods
TWO YEARS after they were first flooded, Gloucester residents Martin Ison and Tina Spiers are still cramped into the upstairs of their house while below reeks of damp and looks like a building site.
Chris Moore, Gloucestershire
First flooded in October 2006, they were hit again five days after the necessary renovation work was completed. Then, in July 2007, water and sewage poured into their home during the worst floods in British modern history. These left 13 dead across the country with 48,000 homes under water in the South West, Midlands, Yorkshire, Humberside. Gloucestershire resembled a war zone.
Back in 2004 the Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence Project reported that flooding would rise by 20 times over the next century, blaming climate change and an ageing drainage system. Yet when Britain faced its biggest civil emergency in 60 years, less than half the flood defences were in good condition.
In the past year there have been many national and local reports and studies. Sir Michael Pitt's review of the government's emergency responses concluded this June that Britain was incapable of responding quickly or adequately to extreme weather, making 77 proposals with another 15 urgent recommendations.
The government claims that £200 million extra has been allocated for flood defences up to 2011. But most of this is earmarked for coastal and river defences and two-thirds of last summer's floods were caused by surface water after heavy rainfall as Britain's archaic drainage system was overwhelmed.
This year's Environment Agency (EA) flood defence funding for Gloucestershire has been cut by £5 million. Two years ago the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was told to make £300 million of cuts, putting vital flood defence schemes under threat, with the EA planning £15 million flood defence cuts.
Following the Pitt Review the government announced that the EA will now 'overview' all inland and coastal flooding, with local authorities responsible at ground level. But the Commons Public Accounts Committee was scathing of the EA's performance and questioned whether the government's extra funding would be used properly.
Gloucester residents blamed the EA for failing to prevent flooding this September in areas that flooded last year. As pensioner Kenneth Tremayne said: "All they do is talk, they never do anything to stop it."
Crudwell in Wiltshire was flooded this January because gullies had not been cleared, drains were blocked and the brook was too narrow. Flood defence work promised by the EA around Upton-on-Severn, Britain's most flood-prone town, was mysteriously pulled in August.
An EA report last December warned that flood defences in Morpeth, Northumberland "needed to be improved and extended", but nothing was done and this July, 400 people had to be evacuated in that town while several people died nationally. Reports and recommendations are all very well but it's changes on the ground that count.
HOUSING IS a major problem in Britain, but the government go-ahead for three million extra homes with massive building on flood plains is madness. In Tewkesbury, one of the worst-hit towns in Gloucestershire last year, 15,000 new homes are planned on its flood plain by 2026.
Last November, thousands marched against these proposals and today some people are still living in caravans waiting for work on their homes to be completed. Tina Spiers explained that flooded homeowners cannot sell and insurance costs are rocketing: "The council or government should buy flooded homes at market value, to allow residents to move out." The Pitt Review said it was 'unrealistic' to ban building on areas vulnerable to flooding - ultimately the building developers' interests take precedence.
The government claims privatised utility companies are now better integrated into flood response plans. Yet Gloucestershire county council recommended that Severn Trent Water (STW) should build a second pipeline, improve flood defences and relocate a pumping station to prevent a repeat of last year's disaster when 300,000 people in Gloucestershire were left with no running water for two weeks.
STW have known of their plants' vulnerability since the 1990s but still block work, claiming that the £30 million cost makes it 'unrealistic'. Yet just after the floods, they announced profits of £325 million and shareholders were given a special payment of £575 million. As Martin Ison said: "STW ought to be nationalised."
The firefighters' union, FBU, explained that fire crews last year lacked even basic waterproof clothing. Phil Jordan, the FBU's South West regional chair said: "Guys in firefighting kit were chest-deep in polluted water. Gloucester is the only full-time station in Gloucestershire with life jackets and proper water rescue kit."
The government also plans to close Gloucester's £6.3 million emergency services control centre, built in 2003, that Phil said "co-ordinated everything and had vital local knowledge" during last year's floods.
Thousands of people were again hit by flooding this year. Decades of privatisation and cuts left us desperately exposed while global warming means we face an ever-increasing risk. The government can pump in billions to save the financial fat cats but offer hardly a trickle to prevent the devastation that will affect millions in the coming years.
A windfall tax on the utility companies who profit from hikes in gas, electricity and other prices could be used for a massive public investment in flood prevention and for grants to flood victims for repairs. But only through public ownership of the utilities and other major companies, under democratic control, can a proper plan for flood prevention start to be implemented.
In The Socialist 2 October 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review