Foreign Affairs

Why The Floods in Britain Have Not Been Gordon Brown’s Katrina

Three years ago, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita scored back-to-back hits on the Gulf coast. During the storms, wild rumors combined with hyped and grossly inaccurate news stories made seasoned   reporters seem like Chicken Littles on speed.  Despite the fact that hurricane relief efforts in the US are mandated to begin on the local, then county and state, and lastly at the federal level, the Bush Administration was attacked as if it was supposed to be running everything from the get-go. Congress and the press kept up the partisan drumbeats and managed to turn an act of God into a political vendetta. 

This has not been the case across the pond where, in late July, record-breaking floods washed over vast swathes of the UK countryside. The Head of International Logistics for the British Red Cross said his people had to mount the largest on-the-ground response on UK soil since World War Two. On a single day, 141 flights in and out of Heathrow airport were canceled. London Underground stations and commuter trains experienced delays and closures. Motorists were stranded. Every existing emergency service was taxed to its limits across the British midlands. In Gloucestershire alone, 140,000 people had no running water for a week. Miraculously, only a few people died, including a set of premature twins when their Mother was trapped by rising water.

Granted, Gordon Brown has been Prime Minister for only a month, but he has served for ten years at the top of Blair’s New Labour government. The record shows Labour had many warnings and the time to plan ahead for disaster.  So why did Bush get bashed (and labeled as an indifferent racist) over Katrina, while Gordon Brown seems to have walked on the waters which turned English towns into islands?  One didn’t expect a peep out of the left leaning British media, but where were the voices of the opposition shouting “off with his head.”  Where was the outcry from the masses?
 
Curiously, it was Conservatives who began hinting to reporters that their Party leader, David Cameron (who was visiting Rwanda during the rains) ought to consider stepping down for the good of their party. Yes, presented with the opportunity to take the higher (and drier) ground by attacking the Labour Party’s disaster planning failures, the Tories fell silent. The result is that Brown’s post-flood poll numbers have gone up.  The press now cheerfully reports that if Brown decides to call a snap election in the fall, he will win.   Cameron, whose constituencies were seriously submerged by the monsoon conditions, mumbled something about how the shine on the new Prime Minister would soon begin to tarnish.  Perhaps he should have said “rust.”  It was vintage Alice through the looking glass politics on the Thames.

No my friends, Gordon Brown neither apologized for the Labour government’s failures in disaster planning, nor comforted the nation on TV or radio. Aside from the kinds of generic promises one expects (about which more later), Brown said precious little. Well, he was heard to tell a group of exhausted disaster relief workers, “You’ve done brilliantly. We’re really proud.”

But Brown & Co. have a lot of ‘splaining to do. Here’s the back-story.  Throughout the 1990’s, the former chief executive of the UK’s Environmental Agency, Ed Gallagher, repeatedly warned the government that the UK’s flood defenses were insufficient and increasingly vulnerable. New Labour took office in 1997 and the Blair government was told, by any number of its own Ministers, that Victorian era sewers were bound to give way the next time severe flooding occurred. Informed about these inevitable calamities, one of Brown’s first actions at the Treasury was to cut the budget for the Environmental Agency. Heavy rains came in 1998 and again in 2000. In their wake, Labourites were unmoved. None seems to have suggested a system for collecting excess water and providing drainage to handle the regular UK cycle of rain and droughts. Hello global warming fans – these cycles go back to when records started being kept in 1766. Instead, Labour went for the boom and ignored history. Real estate developers were allowed to build large houses up to the edges of rivers and on known flood plains. No laws obliged them to design elevated homes (or stilted as they once were known) with living areas a floor above potentially rising waters. No laws were passed which required utility companies to review flood defenses at their major plants and consider moving them to higher ground.

In communities given the option of voting on better flood defenses, the common good fell victim to the “not in my back yard” syndrome. Labour was also successfully lobbied by environmentalists who insisted that flood barriers would inflict  “unforgivable damage” on protected stretches of property known as “greenbelt areas.”  

First off her mark in the July 07 crisis was Lady (Baroness) Young who received her peerage for giving $trong $upport to the Labour Party. In her role as the current head of the UK’s Environmental Agency, Lady Young proclaimed that water bills would immediately have to be raised to pay for improving drainage and protecting infrastructure. This came as a low blow to consumers because the water industry has been imposing above-inflation rate increases on UK householders for the past several years. The Severn Trent Water Company, which serves an area seriously impacted by the July floods, reported $600 million (£300 mil) in profits last year.  This was not a one-off sum amassed by a single corporate water entity. OFWAT, the agency responsible for oversight of the UK’s water industry, reported that water supplying companies were supposed to spend a combined total $8.6 billion (£4.3 bil) in infrastructure improvements from 2005-06, but fell $2 billion short (£1 bil). No one seems to know why.

Swiftly, Lady Young’s predecessor, Ed Gallagher, resurfaced on the BBC to ask the Environmental Agency’s managers to refund their annual five figure bonuses. Young’s bonus amounts to $48,000, 15% of her annual salary of $326,000 (£163,000).

Alistair Darling, Brown’s successor as Treasury Secretary, stood up to say that businesses and people affected by the floods would be given extra time to pay taxes and that interest and surcharges on late payments would be waived. Very kind indeed.

Gordon Brown promised that funds would immediately be made available to flood-hit councils and promised all local authorities would receive 100 per cent compensation. That’s some high-ticket promise as economists estimate the July floods will total $10 billion (£5 billion) or more in damage claims.

Brown also vowed to crank up the government’s budget for flood protection to £800 mil annually by 2010-11. One wonders about that. This is the same period over which the residents of the UK are supposed to help pay for the facilities needed to host the 2012 Olympics. Will Peter be robbed downriver to pay Paul?
 
The Mayors of Tewkesbury and Gloucester, whose towns were severely affected by flooding, evidenced some real moxey.  After the enormous sums the British people have raised for disasters like the 2004 tsunami, these two gents felt it was time to ask for relief money from their own people. And they did. So far the Mayors’ Flood Appeal has taken in £250,000 ($500K).
 
During the deluge, the famous British sense of humor surfaced occasionally. The Times of London columnist, David Aaronovitch, wrote an editorial which lampooned his own newspaper for running the headline: The Floods — What Went Wrong? His answer was — “It rained a hell of a lot.”  To those who suggested that the government ought to have done more, he asked them to imagine Gordon Brown leading the members of Parliament down to the river banks where they would lay like human sandbags to stem the rising tides.

One presumes this is funny because the Brits have become so accustomed to bad government that expectations, unlike rainfall totals, are at an all time low. Scan the newspaper commentaries and only a handful wonder where support from the European Union might be. Was disaster relief something Tony Blair waived as an EU membership benefit for Britain?

“Our governments tend to stumble on from one calamity to the next. That is why the Empire is no more,” lamented a blogging Brit whose stiff upper lip now fails him.


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