Flooding crisis made worse by climate change and cuts to services

In 2015 Britain has seen repeated flooding causing large-scale damage. Tens of thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes, suffered days without power and seen their homes and businesses destroyed as storms repeatedly hit the country. In the latest bout of flooding, thousands of people in Manchester, Leeds and York have been hit, sometimes with the worst floods ever, as rivers broke banks.

In Salford, Greater Manchester, the local news magazine, The Salford Star reported that residents had had almost no notice of the floods. People complained that flood gates failed to work after they hadn’t been properly re-fitted following repair work on the estates.

David Cameron has expressed sympathy with victims, and celebrated the work of the emergency workers. But his government’s policies have made the situation far worse. Back in 2011, the then Tory-Liberal coalition government announced an 8 percent cut (£540 million) in spending on flood defences. Government policies that favour the fossil fuel industry, such as fracking, will only increase emissions leading to further climate change and more frequent floods.

Trade unions that represent workers in the emergency services have repeatedly warned of the impacts of austerity measures on their ability to deal with flooding and other severe weather.

Unison, for instance, which represents workers at the Environment Agency, reported how cuts would reduce its ability to prevent and respond to flooding and tidal surges. In 2012/13 the grant was £124 million less than in 2009/10. [https://www.unison.org.uk/at-work/water-environment-and-transport/key-is...

Staff numbers at the Agency have been reduced by around 1000. The November 2015 autumn statement pledged that the Agency would have its funding for flood defences “preserved”, but the rest of its budget would decrease by 15%. The government claims that it is protecting front line services that respond to emergencies and help prevent flooding, but cutting behind the scenes staff and resources hit the ability of workers to deal with crises, and the ability to make long term plans for future, worsening, weather.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has also highlighted the way that cuts will affect its ability to respond to emergencies such as flooding. In response to the most recent floods the FBU said that “threats posed by such large scale floods are beyond the capacity of local services to cope. The impact of massive cuts to funding of the country’s fire and rescue service is being felt by all firefighters, including those who are aiding flood rescue.”

Simon Hickman, Manchester FBU Brigade Organiser, whose members were on the front line dealing with floods in Salford said, “We’re stretched to the limit with the lack of resources due to the cuts, and we’ve just been told that £15.8 million is to be cut locally. It is bad enough this time but it will be far worse next time. We had 56 fire engines available, the majority were committed to incidents. Yet we are told we may be cut down to as few as 30 at night time, which will remove any resilience in the future”.

Even Coastguard services have been cut back.

The government is well aware of the increased risks of flooding because of climate change.  Almost a decade ago, in 2006, Nicolas Stern wrote an extensive report into the economic impacts of climate change for the then Labour government which warned that “Infrastructure damage from flooding and storms is expected to increase substantially” unless there were flood management policies that could avoid this. In purely economic terms, Stern saw the situation as getting far worse as global warming increased, warning that

“The costs of flooding in Europe are likely to increase, unless flood management is strengthened in line with the rising risk. In the UK, annual flood losses could increase from around 0.1% of GDP today to 0.2 – 0.4% of GDP once global temperature increases reach 3 to 4°C.”

These floods are not “unprecedented” they are the new norm. Climate change means that we are going to see more frequent and more extreme flooding. In order to protect lives, homes and businesses we need to reverse the cuts to emergency services and the Environmental Agency and increase funding.

We also need investment that can reduce the impact of climate change. Writing in The Guardian, environmental campaigner George Monbiot has shown that planting trees can help the soil absorb water. Rather than cuts, we should be creating jobs that can save lives, protect property and reduce the impact of climate change.

But we also need to drastically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. This is why the Campaign against Climate Change, with seven national trade unions, and the National Union of Students are calling for One Million Climate Jobs. The creation of such jobs, through investment in renewable energy, insulation schemes, public transport and energy reduction could reduce emissions from the UK by 86% in twenty years. The trade union movement recognises that climate change is no longer an abstract discussion, but a reality. Dealing with it can help create jobs and improve society.

In 2014 David Cameron told flooded communities in the South-West that “money was no object” in helping them recover from that year’s floods. In 2016 we must hold him to that statement and demand the sort of investment that can prevent future disasters.