Tories can’t hide indifference after Storm Desmond floods

Britain’s increasing vulnerability to extreme weather was exposed in December after Storm Desmond inflicted havoc and misery on tens of thousands of people. Barnaby Phillips reports.

Records in rainfall and river levels culminated in the flooding of more than 16,000 properties in England alone. Many were devastated. Cumbria, parts of Lancashire and the Scottish Borders were the worst affected areas while severe downpours and flooding also hit Northumberland, north Wales and Yorkshire. In Ireland, the worst hit areas were in the Shannon River Basin in the west and Irish midlands. Two people lost their lives, in Cumbria and the Republic of Ireland. In the North Yorkshire village of Newton-on-Ouse, fire-fighters rescued 26 school children by boat from a bus that began to fill with water after being swept off the road. Damage to roads, bridges and buildings will cost millions of pounds and take months to repair.

For David Cameron, the turmoil made for a nice photo op to don a pair of green wellies in ankle-deep water and affect effortless mock concern. He was soon back in the comfort of parliament giving typically evasive answers about Britain’s flood defences to a chorus of whooping and laughing Tory MPs. Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition cut spending on conventional flood defences despite promises made after severe flooding in 2012 – including postponing schemes, as in Kendal and Leeds, that could have prevented December’s chaos. Liz Truss, the environment secretary, also avoided queries about whether the government had applied for help from the EU’s solidarity fund, worth up to £359m a year.

The self-proclaimed ‘greenest government ever’ has also cut support for solar power, laying off thousands of industry staff. It has given £1 billion to North Sea oil but excluded onshore windfarms from a subsidy scheme. Incentives for low-emission vehicles have been reduced and the ‘green deal’ in for ‘zero carbon homes’ has been scrapped. The UK’s Green Bank faces part-privatisation and a new tidal power scheme in Wales has been delayed by a year.

In Scotland, Finance Secretary John Swinney told flood-stricken communities that ‘more money’, in addition to £4m allocated in December’s draft budget, would be made available to affected councils – while claiming that SNP cuts of 6% (£2.4m) to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) would not diminish flood forecasting services.

There were many examples of positive collective action in lieu of help from the capitalist state. Although reported with the implied surprise of a racist liberal press, a special interfaith service held at St James’s church in Hebden Bridge was attended by Muslim charities and Sikh charity Khalsa Aid, which dished out thousands of hot meals across Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. A Muslim youth charity, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, said its 350 volunteers had worked 7,400 hours over the Christmas period, helping 10,000 people in 38 towns and villages. And in Mytholmroyd, a group of Syrian refugees turned up to shovel mud from the playground at the Burnley Road Academy, a primary school that was badly damaged during the Boxing Day floods.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 249 February/March 2016 


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