Flooding in Gloucester, photo Chris Moore
AT THE time of writing, the worst floods in Britain in modern history are still causing havoc. In Gloucestershire 350,000 homes have no water supply after a treatment plant flooded. Around 45,000 homes are, or have been, without electricity. In scenes reminiscent of New Orleans 1,500 people were given emergency shelter in Oxford United's stadium amid fears that the Thames could burst its banks.
While Gordon Brown flew overhead in a helicopter, down below the floods have led to countless acts of heroism; from the fire-fighters who had to dive repeatedly underwater to prevent a second power station flooding (which would have meant a further 200,000 homes losing their electricity supply) to the many individuals who risked their own lives to rescue others.
At the moment thousands are still stranded in churches and community centres waiting for the waters to start to go down. However, even when the flood waters recede the nightmare will not be over for those who have been affected. It is already estimated that the floods have done £2 billion of damage.
The experience of those who suffered flooding in Yorkshire last month indicates that the government will not provide the money needed for repairs and restoration. Sheffield, for example has only received £600,000 in immediate flood relief. Yet in only one street in Sheffield it is estimated that the 22 flooded houses will cost £35,000 each to make habitable again.
Even those covered by insurance will have to wait months and are unlikely to receive enough money from the insurance brokers for all the repairs needed. The infrastructure is also in urgent need of repair. Sheffield council estimates that they will need £20 million just to repair the roads that were flooded.
Grants should be given to everyone that has been affected to cover the cost of repairs. The government will argue that this is not affordable, but this is the fifth richest country on the planet. Britain's richest 1,000 people have quadrupled their wealth under New Labour; their wealth has increased by £59 billion in the last twelve months alone!
Most of these people pay less in taxes than their cleaners. If Brown demanded that these billionaires pay a 'windfall' tax to cover the cost of the damage caused by the rainfall it would be enormously popular. However, New Labour's ultra-pro-big-business government will not risk upsetting the handful of super-rich in whose interests they govern.
Flooding in Gloucester, photo Chris Moore
NEW LABOUR'S policies are responsible for much of the disastrous consequences of these floods. Evangels for big-business, they believe that privatisation and the market will solve all ills. Planning, and even the most limited-public ownership, is utterly alien to them. What public services still exist are constantly being cutback.
Last year the budget for flood defences was cut by £15 million. This despite the fact that the environment agency had predicted that heavy rain will become three or four times more common in the coming decades, and two government reports had warned that not enough was being done to prevent and prepare for floods.
Following the floods the government promised an extra £200 million over three years to the Environment Agency to improve flood defences. As ever with New Labour, part of this money is not actually 'new' but in any case it is nowhere near enough. Following years of neglect, the Environment Agency says that £1 billion a year is needed to rebuild Britain's flood defences.
Only 46% of the flood defences protecting towns are currently in good condition. Like New Orleans' levees, Britain's flood barriers have been left to decay over decades. Meanwhile, one in six houses is being built on the flood plains.
At the same time the privatised water companies are raking in huge profits but doing little or nothing to repair the ageing drainage system, which even Brown described, accurately, as "19th century". Day to day this contributes to leakages. Thames Water, for example, made £250 million in profit last year. Yet since 2001, its daily leakages have risen by 32% because of the age of the pipes. In times of heavy rain the state of the drains makes floods far more likely.
The extreme severity of last month's floods in Hull was largely due to the state of the drains. Yorkshire water made £240 million in profits last year; an 8% increase on the year before. The water companies should be renationalised immediately, under democratic working-class control, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.
The floods reveal the increasing inability of capitalism, even in the richest countries of the planet, to provide a safe existence for ordinary people.
At a time when public services are being cut back and described as 'outdated' the floods demonstrate the need for services such as water, flood relief and rescue services to be publicly owned and properly funded. Capitalism aims to make profits at the expense of even our basic needs and is itself 'outdated.'
As we have seen during the floods, ordinary people see the need to help others in need. A socialist society, run for need and not profit, would build on such co-operation as opposed to the greed of the super rich.