British Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to cover the government’s tracks as disastrous flooding in the north of England makes a mockery of his claims to be taking responsibility for citizens’ safety. The press and parliament have so far not made an effective challenge to his public relations spin, but victims of the floods have shown their contempt. In a rare sighting of the prime minister by a member of the public, a woman shouted: “No more cuts to public services.”
During a photo-opportunity visit to emergency workers in York on Monday (so avoiding working-class Leeds), Cameron called the disaster unprecedented, rhetorically disconnecting it from his government’s defunding of state agencies. In reality it is a disaster of refusing to act on documented warnings by state officials and a willingness to take risks with people’s lives and property for the sake of advancing a destructive agenda of austerity.
After the flooding of three major British cities – York, Leeds, and Manchester – Cameron claimed that a lot of money was already being spent on flood defences and thousands of homes had been protected, pledging that the government would “help people in their hour of need and respond to unprecedented levels of rainfall.” As the Independent pointed out, “the implication here is that the freakish weather is so outlandishly unreal, so Old Testament, that no amount of government preparation, no flood defences, no civil contingency planning could possibly have mitigated its effects.”
However, the Guardian reported, as late as October this year the government decided not to develop a strategy to address the risk of increased flooding even after being warned by its official climate change advisers that it urgently needed to take action. And the cautions were specific: “Yorkshire’s regional flood and coastal committee (RFCC) warned about the potential impact of the region’s revenue funding gap just weeks before floods overran towns and cities in the region.” The actual state of the defences was brought into sharp relief after pumping equipment in York was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of water.
The conservative Yorkshire Post said Cameron “was left on the back foot after Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds Council, claimed the disaster was ‘preventable’ and would not have been allowed to occur in the South. … [he] is facing a tide of public anger after it emerged that the Government dug deep last December to finance a £300m scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180m scheme to safeguard 4,500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.”
The same paper commented in an editorial: “The prime minister repeatedly used the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe this winter’s storms. Yet every fortnight brings ‘unprecedented’ levels of new flooding and the same pious platitudes from politicians, such as the environment secretary, Liz Truss, whose rhetoric is increasingly economical with the truth.” While claiming her department is spending more on flood prevention, “she chooses to overlook the fact that many schemes are subject to partnership funding from councils and other agencies whose budgets have been decimated by spending cuts.”
Earlier, in 2012, “the government’s own research showed increased flooding is the greatest threat posed by climate change in England. But when heavy flooding hit in the summer of 2012, the Guardian revealed that almost 300 proposed flood defences had not gone ahead as planned following the cuts. A £58m scheme in Leeds – one of the cities hit in the latest round of flooding – was one affected project, which would have saved many times its cost in avoided damages.”
In Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, residents attacked the government’s inaction. The town was devastated by floods in 2012, but the latest flooding was worse, they said. “The government has done nothing to help us,” said local shop owner Janet Chew-Tetlaw. “They come round and say what they are going to do and make big promises, but nothing ever comes out of it. … All this is because culverts do not get cleared by the Environment Agency, the water is running off the moors because the trees are being cut down – destroying natural flood defences – and planning permission has been given for big housing developments on the hillsides, so there is no earth to soak up the water.”
What the situation demands is a bold political intervention to change land usage and to rebuild flood defences for future storms, like the Dutch, who have spent the past decade “deepening and widening rivers, creating new side canals that provide extra capacity, and setting aside land as dedicated flood plains. … All this so that when the water does come, the swollen rivers can expand without flooding homes and causing misery.” However, the British government’s role is one of cutting infrastructure spending and succumbing to business interests like farming and real estate that put short-term profit over longer-term safety.
Cameron’s social base is the financiers of the City of London who want negligible taxation on their wealth to avoid contributing to the common good. While in the last election he was successful in convincing enough of the property-owning middle class that austerity would secure their fortunes, it is now clear that defunding the state destroys essential conditions for normal life.
The only politician who has consistently spoken out for higher spending on public assets is Jeremy Corbyn. His social base is people who have already been affected by government cuts, for example in social services and public housing. Instead of repeatedly trying to undermine Corbyn, Labour MPs like the right-wing Simon Danczuk should forget about sending a few jets to Syria and get more helicopters to northern Britain. The biggest danger facing the British is not the threat of terrorism, but the Cameron government’s readiness to risk the lives of its own citizens in order to hang on to its support in the City of London.
Vying with UKIP leader Nigel Farage to be Britain’s answer to Donald Trump, Danczuk now calls for diverting the whole of foreign aid into shoring up the country’s aging infrastructure. This demagogic posturing accepts there is no alternative to austerity budgets by assuming no more money can be forthcoming for essential public projects from taxing the rich.
Will Cameron’s dishonest platitudes generate enough pushback from the electorate for this to be his Katrina moment? It certainly should. Heckuva job, David!