Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Floods, of water and then of blame

An amusing piece has been circulating on the internet for some days, in connection with the flooding increasingly affecting England, and the government’s failure to respond to it.

Not entirely fair but largely true indictment of
David Cameron's inept reaction to the floods
It is, I have to admit, unfair. The ‘meeting named after a snake’ is COBRA, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room used for summits on emergencies, so a meeting there means the government is at last taking things seriously. It’s not entirely fair to make it sound like inaction.

On the other hand, what call is there for fairness towards a government that has made injustice its primary mode of behaviour? It has, for instance, refused benefits to people who were plunged into misery or in some cases died as a result, while tossing tax reductions to the wealthiest. Fair? It knows nothing of it.

The last entry in the list, 'Cameron cabinet blame each other', refers to what’s been happening most recently. And that shows the government in its most revealing, if not particularly inspiring, colours.

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, has had to go into hospital for surgery on a detached retina. So he handed responsibility for government reaction to the flooding, to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. In a government not particularly noted for its charm, Pickles still stands out for his charmlessness.

Eric Pickles. Charm? Not perhaps the first term that springs to mind
At the weekend, he lambasted the people in the Environment Agency for giving poor advice to government: they had opposed dredging rivers as a way of avoiding floods. They were ‘experts’, he told us, but he made ‘expert’ sound a lot worse than ‘leper’.

Now, I don’t know much about flood defences, but if the experts – and I believe in expertise, unlike Mr Pickles – say that dredging’s not the answer, I’m inclined to accept their view. The people affected by the flooding feel they know better, and I sympathise with them: with their homes under water, I’m sure they consider that any solution would have been preferable, whatever the long term consequences.

Sadly, government ministers, and first and foremost Pickles, have also decided they know better than environmental experts. They’ve got no basis for that belief, and for nearly four years in office they’ve taken no independent initiative revealing any particular wisdom in this field, but they claim special insight these days.

But stop! Apparently not all of them make this claim. Paterson, from his hospital bed, was so incensed by the rantings of Pickles that he wrote to ask the Prime Minister to rein him in. So yesterday Pickles told the House of Commons that he had unbounded admiration for the staff on the ground of the Environment Agency. 

To be fair, what he said was that no one exceeds him in admiration for those staff, which means that he has less than anyone else. But I suppose we ought to base ourselves on what he really meant, and not hold him to account for his inability to express himself adequately in English.

In any case, his statement was code. He pointedly extended no praise for the Chairman of the Agency, Chris Smith, which is as neat a way as one could imagine of damning Smith without actually naming him. 

Lord Smith is a former Labour Minister.

Now that’s the one thing that has united Conservative Ministers – Labour. David Cameron was absolutely clear that the flooding was all down to the Labour government’s inaction. Labour’s been out of office for nearly four years. You’d think that the government might have had time to put some things right over that period.

Instead what it’s done is cut the Environment Agency’s budget, and put in place tough cost-benefit criteria for any new flood defence project. If a project can’t show benefits worth eight times as much as the cost of the investment, it can’t go ahead. So if you live in an area where the benefits of flood protection are only worth seven times the cost, tough. You won’t get the protection. If there are floods – swim for it.

Given that’s the position, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the government is keen to shift the blame to someone else.

I’m glad to say Chris Smith’s refusing to shoulder it. He’s made it clear that his agency has done all it can within the resources it has been given. Nor is the Labour Party taking it lying down: they’re rightly hitting back at the government’s incompetence, pointing in particular at the months when it did nothing, and now the unedifying spectacle they present, of a bunch of people desperate to shift the blame and falling out amongst themselves.

All very sad. All very squalid. All very Conservative Party.

The Greeks said that those who the Gods wished to destroy, they first made mad. Well, the madness seems to be taking hold. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that the destruction of this government comes close behind.

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