You couldn’t have scripted it; one day a lackluster performance at the Paris “COP21” Climate Change talks, and the next up to his knees in flood water in a pair of Asda galoshes. (Last time he was wearing a pair of Hunter’s, but apparently one of the important issues for the PM’s team was his wellie image). The Prime Minister has, through gritted teeth I’m sure, acknowledged the scale of flooding in Cumbria was due to climate change. Emergency support has been pledged, householders and businesses will be compensated, and politicians are making soothing noises about making sure it doesn’t happen again. Next week though, they will be back to talking about something else and in Westminster it will all be forgotten.
You will have to excuse my skepticism but I have literally been here before. In 2007 I was a middle ranking civil servant working in the regional office as the point of contact between Gloucestershire County Council and central government. At two hours notice I found myself in the police control centre “Gold Command”, out of my depth in more ways than one. As the waters rose, it became evident that a huge emergency was unfolding, with threats to human life, property and farm animals. Power cuts were followed by sewerage problems and more significantly, drinking water for thousands of households was contaminated. Under threat of civil unrest as well as a potential public health disaster, the Army was mobilized to bring in thousands of bottles of drinking water. (They brought water bowsers too, but the local kids were caught urinating in them, which seemed to put people off). Huge pumps were set up to protect electrical sub-stations and other ‘single points of failure’, which in a moment of genius had been built on the flood plain, and we all held our breath as we waited to see if Gloucestershire was going to need to be evacuated. Oh, and sure enough, politicians in wellies appeared.
Indeed, I had the dubious pleasure of joining the “floods minister” John Healey MP in an amphibious army truck that ploughed its way through the water to Tewksbury to offer the government’s sympathy and support to locals. We drove slowly on the way there as the BBC were filming from the trailer being towed behind. Once the cameras were switched off, the driver was instructed to put his foot down regardless of the bow wave, as the Minister was late for another appointment back in London. It was a precedent for what was to come; the short-term issue had to be dealt with, but once the water receded, it was back to business as usual. I spent the next year helping to compile a list of “at risk” infrastructure, solving insurance problems and helping small businesses to recover. However, once the roads were fixed, government was long gone, and the proposals for long-term solutions were quietly shelved.
Well, here we are again; the Prime Minister offering the government’s sympathy and support to locals in a different part of the UK. It happened in Hull in 2013, Somerset a few months later and now Cumbria. I’m not sure which bit of 1 in 100 is still relevant, but you can bet the cost of your next buildings & contents renewal that insurance companies are revising that figure downwards as fast as they are revising premiums upwards.
But what about Bristol? Is our greatest asset also our biggest risk? We have a big new tunnel dug using explosives under the Hippodrome out to the River Avon to mitigate city centre flooding, but last summer’s “Highwaterline” project highlighted just how much of Bristol is at risk, especially now that the Environment Agency have revised their estimates in light of climate change and sea level rise.
Surely now government must realize that unless we take long-term actions to combat climate change, anything less is just the metaphorical ‘finger in the dam’. I fear this Chancellor will wait for the next storm to deluge the UK whilst ignoring climate change as too expensive & difficult to deal with. Osborne has previously said “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. Well, I wonder how the economy of Cumbria is going to fare this Christmas. If my experience in Gloucestershire is anything to go by, it will not be helping reduce the UK deficit any time soon. I don’t suppose the oil company lobbyists are going to stick around when the bills need paying either. Our Chancellor is either a climate denier, or an unbelievably short-sighted economist.