We’ve been caught with our defences down and left to drown, says Roger Ratcliffe
Any week now I expect to see plastered across the front page of the Daily Express a headline like “THE BIG HEAT: UK FACES SUMMER DROUGHT” with a story warning that we’re all set to endure a blistering summer mega-scorcher complete with hosepipe bans and water rationing at street standpipes. Never mind that parts of the north and Scotland are still floundering in floodwater and reservoirs are full to
The Express’s weather stories have become a bit of a laughing stock. Last September the paper predicted we were heading for the coldest winter in half a century. I suppose there’s still time, but my reason for mentioning this is that the Express at least recognises our increasingly erratic climate has made many people obsessed with the weather. Stories predicting yet more mayhem sell more papers.
There are good grounds for fixating. Since the appalling summer of 2007 many people haven’t just read about the weather but watched in horror as floodwater gushed up from the floorboards and streamed through their doors. In both summer and winter the map of northern England now lights up with red, amber and yellow flood alerts. Flood sirens and warning SMS texts from the Environment Agency are a fact of life for many thousands every time there is heavy rain. Yet while places like Hull, Sheffield, York, Leeds, Hebden Bridge, Lancaster, Carlisle and others too numerous to name were deluged the government’s response was to dither.
Weeks after the latest floods have subsided, it has splashed out just enough cash for a new flood wall here, some standby sandbags there. I’m left wondering if politicians will only twig what is happening in this country when they have to put on lifejackets to step on to the House of Commons terrace for their pre-prandial drinks beside the Thames.
After Storm Desmond lashed the North West in December, David Cameron’s response was to buy a pair of £8 supermarket wellies and go for a paddle in Carlisle to show how much he cared. But he has been just as miserly when it comes to providing the money needed to ensure these floods don’t happen again.
In the case of Leeds, where the River Aire burst its banks west of the city centre, it took a whole month to get a promise of action on improved flood defences. But what was wrung out of the government was not serious money for major work but just a feasibility study. Likewise, it took four weeks to pledge more cash for flood defences in the devastated village of Mytholmroyd in
the Calder Valley.
I suspect the government is being quietly advised that some areas prone to regular flooding would cost too much to save. This was certainly the thinking of the Environment Agency back in 2007 when I interviewed one of its strategic managers. He suggested that lesser populated areas would ultimately be left to the floodwaters.
The government needs to start thinking like the Express and recognise that severe weather events are what people fear the most. The £167 billion currently earmarked for new Trident nuclear missiles should be spent on protecting every vulnerable community in the UK. The clear and present danger we face isn’t from a nuclear war that no one would win, but our climate.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe