Posts Tagged ‘Severn Estuary’

Conservative Apologies and Lies in Flooded Somerset

February 10, 2014

somersetfloods1

‘How do you know when a politician’s lying?’
‘His lips move.’

-Old Joke told on the Max Headroom Show circa 1986.

‘How do you know when David Cameron is lying?’
‘I refer the honourable gentleman/lady to the answer to the previous question.’

David Cameron will be touring the flooded areas of south-western England this morning trying to reassure the poor souls there that the government is doing its uttermost to combat the disaster and help the people recover their homes, land and livelihoods that are now drowned under the flood waters.

It’s a horrific disaster, as a brief glance at the pictures coming from the affected areas show. In Somerset people have had to be moved out of their houses, while farmer’s have lost crops as the floods covered their fields. One farmer was faced with the stark choice between selling or giving some of his cattle away, or sending them to be slaughtered as he had nowhere he could keep them, so hard was his farm hit by the floods.

During prehistory, and then in the early middle ages the Somerset levels was marshland, and some memory of the extend of the marsh environment is shown in area’s place names. The ‘ey’ in the names of places such as Muchelney, Athelney and so on comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ieg’, meaning an island. These villages were islands of dry land in the surrounding marsh. During the Neolithic the local people constructed the Sweet Track, a timber walkway through the marsh supported by poles as a way of getting across the marshy environment. Similar wooden tracks crossing the north German moors were built during the Iron Age.

The marshland was gradually reclaimed from the 13th century onwards, though by the end of the 17th century only about a 1/3 of the levels was dry land. The remaining land was reclaimed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Water management and drainage has continued to be vital to the maintenance of the Levels, as the area is criss-crossed by a series of ‘rhines’ and drainage channels, like the King’s Sedgemoor Drain. Historically it has suffered from terrible floods. One in the early 17th century, created through a combination of bad weather and a tidal surge up the Severn Estuary, drowned houses, fields and livestock with the flood waters advancing about eight miles from Glastonbury itself. One eyewitness to this inundation recalled seeing crows perching on floating sheep, until the sheep in their turn sank and drowned. Fortunately the modern floods aren’t that severe, but they’re harmful enough to the people down there, who’ve had to be moved out of their houses.

Cameron visited the area yesterday, promising the local people that there would be every effort to combat the floods and that £3 million had been allocated to do this. He also made other, predictable claims that the government was spending more on flood defences than the Labour government.

Cameron has been merely the latest in a line of politicians and public figures to come down to look at the disaster and speak to its victims. They included Chris Smith, the environment secretary, and Prince Charles. Smith’s response to the crisis had caused even more anger. The local Tory MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, was furious at the way the environment agency had handled the disaster. He stated that when the area had suffered flooding a year ago, he spoke to Smith, who promised that suitable action would be taken. Nothing, however, was done. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Eric Pickles offered an unconditional apology to the people of Somerset for the way the government had mishandled it. Liddell-Grainger had gone even further, and demanded Smith’s resignation. Smith duly appeared on TV to say he had absolutely no intention of resigning, and was completely satisfied with his Agency’s actions. This had simply infuriated Mr Liddell-Grainger even more, and no doubt contributed to the apology offered by Pickles.

Cameron also acknowledged that mistakes had been made. He stated that the Agency had stopped dredging the Levels in the 1990s, and that this was a mistake.

Now the floods wreaking havoc throughout the country are a vital issue for Cameron and his administration. Not only are they a national disaster, but the areas affected are of crucial political importance for the Tory party. Like much of rural England, parts of Somerset are a Tory heartland. My parents have joked before now that in some of the villages, there used to be only two social clubs you could join when they were young: the Farmers’ Union and the Young Conservatives. With the Tories now suffering competition from UKIP, Cameron needs to show the Tories’ traditional constituents that he is indeed acting on their behalf.

Mixed in the with promises, however, are liberal amounts of the lies, which you can expect from a Tory leader. I’ve reblogged a piece from Mike over at Vox Political, on the way the way the BBC – surprisingly! – picked up the way the Tories had manipulated the graphs showing funding for the Environment Agency to suggest that it was actually much larger than it actually was. As for their claim that the Tories were now spending more on flood defences than Labour, this is may well be true. Now. After the floods had occurred, and demanded immediate action. I doubt very, very much this was the case before though. An administration dedicated to cutting government spending, and which reneged on its promises to preserve the NHS, is hardly likely to have left the Environment Agency untouched.

As for Cameron’s acknowledgement that they had stopped dredging in the 1990s, and this was a mistake, this occurred under the last Tory prime minister, John Major. During Major’s administration Private Eye ran a number of stories reporting the way government agencies and watchdogs regulating the environment and the utilities were increasingly downsized, with their powers restricted, in order to give greater freedom to industry. I’ve got a feeling that one of these was almost certainly the Environment Agency or its predecessor. Cameron’s government is similarly dedicated to minimising, if not removing altogether, government regulation and interference, and so I cannot see any long term changes occurring under Cameron. In fact, I can see the complete opposite. After the floods recede, what will probably happen is that, after a brief show of some token of increased funding or activity, the Environment Agency will go back to doing as little as possible as usual. Worse, it will probably be under pressure to cut services further to make savings to make up for the vast amount spent dealing with the floods. So despite Cameron’s grandiose claims, the people currently hit by the floods will be less protected afterwards than they were before.

What matters is not that permanent solutions are put in place to tackle the floods and prevent them occurring all over again. What matters is that Cameron is seen to be doing something, so that he can continue to cling to power and make further savings by slashing government expenditure. This is what his paymasters in the multinationals want. And the locals in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Berkshire will be left to fend for themselves.

Advertisements