I HAD an anguished phone call from a friend the other day, who told me that her elderly parents had to be evacuated from their home by boat when the River Dearne burst its banks and charged straight through their kitchen.
Their insurance company put them up in a local hotel, because my friend’s own home isn’t suitable for her 80-year-old father’s mobility needs. He also suffers from cancer, dementia and COPD, and after several days in the hotel, had to be rushed to hospital.
Sick elderly people having to be evacuated by boat in Barnsley, leaving everything behind except what they stood up in? Their kitchen knee-deep in sewage? Their beloved treasures ruined forever?
Is this what we call ‘‘the new normal’’? This awful story didn’t even make the news, because it is just one case out of hundreds, if not thousands, across the UK. In a divided and divisive country, the threat of flooding should become the one thing that unites us. And whatever your beliefs on climate change, scientific evidence suggests that it is only going to get worse.
The Met Office says that since 1910 there have been 17 record-breaking rainfall months or seasons in the UK. Nine of these have been since 2000. You don’t have to be a climatologist to work out that all that rain has to go somewhere. And all too often that means homes and businesses, washing away the very fabric of communities and leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.
Did you know that flooding is now on the official list of major threats to the British way of life, along with cyber attacks and terrorism? Our political leaders need to wake up to this fact, fast.
Boris Johnson, who took days to respond to the recent South Yorkshire floods, should have realised this before he shrugged off calls to declare the situation a ‘‘national emergency’’.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn was quick to make political capital out of the Prime Minister’s misjudgment, calling his response “woeful” and accusing the Tories of neglecting Northern England in favour of the South. Speaking at a rally in Blackpool, the Labour leader said spending on flood defences had fallen in Yorkshire, the North West and the East Midlands since 2016 – while increasing in the South East. “Just imagine if this [the Doncaster floods] had happened in Surrey,” he added.
On this, he’s spot on. What if homes and businesses around Westminster, in Chelsea or Battersea, had found themselves five foot under water? Would Mr Johnson have considered this a national emergency?
However, flooding is far too serious to become a political football. All too often it is a matter of life and death – a 69-year-old woman died in floodwaters near Darley Dale in Derbyshire just over two weeks ago. It should be demanding a co-ordinated and cross-party approach.
It’s not only in Treasury terms – calculating the significant government investment required for adequate national flood prevention measures and defences – but the impact on the national economy in general.
If and when we finally depart the European Union, is the picture of businesses and crops ruined, livestock drowned and families forced out of their homes for months on end one we really want to show the world?
Flood experts have described the Government’s failure to adequately prepare for flooding as the “biggest generational betrayal since the Second World War” as they called for a joined-up approach to flood defences.
But the inescapable fact is that controlling water in one place simply moves it to another. Also, as Professor Piers Forster, professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds, and member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, says, there is much preventative work to be done in the uplands many miles away from where floods occur. He stresses the need for communities to communicate. This can only be done when underpinned by effective relationships between the Environment Agency, water companies, local authorities and landowners.
There is also a very strong argument for establishing a government rapid response team which springs into action when a major flooding event occurs. There should be proper respect given to expert warnings and none of this official dissembling when floodwaters start to rise. I don’t, for instance, understand the reluctance to deploy troops to assist flood-stricken communities; I know the emergency services do a fine job, but with resources cut to the bone, they are stretched at the best of times.
And whoever heads the next government must be asked to address the fact that thousands of new homes have been built on flood plains or are planned for land deemed to be at risk. Will Great Britain sink or swimthe Tories promise £4bn of extra funding for flood defences? Time will tell.