This winter has seen devastating floods forcing people to abandon their homes and businesses across the North of England, Scotland and elsewhere in the U.K. We in Grimsby know just how damaging floods can be to people’s lives and livelihoods, and my thoughts over Christmas and today are with those who have lost their lives, lost loved ones, and those who have been at the centre of this upheaval.
I secured a debate in Parliament in July to question whether Britain was sufficiently protected against flooding. As I noted at the time, flooding has received little or no attention from the government in recent years. That is until a major flood occurs; then, then they can’t get to the flooded communities quickly enough. Once again, there has been a flurry of media coverage and visits from ministers this winter- but this time, we can’t allow the attention to dry up with the rain.
David Cameron has called the recent flooding “unprecedented.” The floods which affected my constituency in December 2013 were blamed by the Government on “the largest tidal surge in 60 years”, while the floods in the South West during the winter of 2013/14 were because of “the wettest winter on record.” Those statements may be true, but they are watery excuses for being unprepared.
Four of the five wettest years on record in the U.K. have been during the 21st Century. Sea levels around our coastline have risen by 16cm since the end of the 18th Century. The Government cannot continue to feign shock every time Britain floods. It’s time they are honest and accept that the ‘extreme’ weather of the last few years is now the norm.
The government therefore need to take the risk of flooding seriously all year round, not just in times of crisis. That means abandoning their short-term politics of cutting millions from flood defence budgets in 2010 and 2015, only to put the money back in after major floods hit. Kicking the can down the road is an irresponsible approach and will only see more people suffer in the future.
We need consistent funding set out over a long-term cycle for maintenance and repairs to defences. A flood risk officer from my local council told me last year that cracks appear in our defences every year, but because there’s no money in the budget for proper repairs, they have to cement over them by hand. Throughout the Humber estuary three quarters of our flood defences are in a less than good condition, and according to the Environment Agency half the nation’s defences are just ‘minimally maintained’. While the government have set out spending levels for building new defences six years in advance, spending on maintaining flood defences has been allocated for this year only. This has created a perverse incentive to build new defences rather than properly sustain existing structures.
As the government aims to tackle the housing shortage, they should consider whether there should be statutory protection and drainage systems for new build housing on flood plains. It beggars belief that the Government’s 195-page Housing and Planning Bill does not mention flood resilience or sustainable drainage systems. The Government also need to ask whether water companies can play a bigger part in providing better maintained drainage systems that can cope with heavy rainfall.
And how can we improve the information residents and local agencies receive? Warning and detection systems for some types of flooding have a 75% false alarm rate, meaning councils are often unable to prepare ahead of rainfall. Many residents in high-risk areas in my constituency don’t know they live on flood plains, and I know this lack of awareness caused unnecessary disruption and stress during the last flood. Because victims didn’t know which organisation has responsibility for helping them, they were left feeling that they were being passed from pillar to post. More needs to be done to allow residents and businesses at risk of flooding to plan ahead.
If the government are serious about rethinking their approach to flooding, they need to be honest with people about levels of flooding we expect in future, and undertake a holistic review of how best to protect people. Unfortunately, David Cameron seems to be doing exactly the same as before- visiting the floods in his wellies, promising to invest the money he previously cut, generally looking busy, and then quickly forgetting about it all.