UK’s floods are the responsibility of the super-rich

By Barry Mason and Paul Mitchell
15 January 2016

The UK saw wide-scale flooding in the closing months of 2015 and in January, affecting Wales, Scotland, northwest England and parts of Yorkshire. Thousands of homes and businesses have been ruined, road and railway lines closed and residents left without utilities. According to accountancy firm KPMG, the total cost of the floods could be as high as £5.8 billion.

The Conservative government’s response to the devastation has been minimal. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a paltry £40 million to repair flood defences in the major conurbations of Leeds and York. This is under conditions where, since 2000, the UK has experienced the five wettest years on record. Many areas have been flooded two or three times.

The government’s expert Committee on Climate Change says the situation is likely to get worse because “Flooding, heat waves and periods of drought are projected to become more common.” It declares that “it is critical that appropriate and cost-effective steps are taken to prepare and adapt the country to climate change.”

In England alone, 5.2 million properties, one in six, are at risk of flooding. It has been estimated that maintaining existing levels of flood defence would require flood defence funding to increase to over £1billion per year by 2035. Currently it is under half that amount.

Since 2000, several scientific reports have been published and inquiries held laying out the consequences of the lack of investment in new and sustainable flood defences and poor maintenance of existing infrastructure. Despite the warnings, they have been ignored by successive governments whether Labour, the Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition and Conservative, or the Scottish National Party administration in Holyrood. Over this period, funding for the Environment Agency (EA), which is supposed to have overall control of flood control, has been cut by 14 percent—about a quarter in real terms—leading to huge job losses. A similar fate has befallen the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Just before the latest floods, the government received another warning from the Association of Drainage Authorities whose members include the EA, local councils and drainage boards. The leaked report revealed that the EA had “reduced the extent of their watercourse channel maintenance and taken steps to stop operating a number of structures and systems.”

Because of 40 percent government imposed budget cuts, councils have reduced funding to organisations and landowners who carry out flood defence work. “Such reductions in investment mean that some river, watercourse and sea defence systems and structures are maintained only to a minimal level,” the association stated.

The government’s attempt to get the private sector to come up with money for flood defences through “partnership funding” has been a disaster, with less than 4 percent of total funding coming from such sources.

The situation can only get worse. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which includes the EA, is one of four government departments that have agreed to slash their budgets by an unprecedented 30 percent over the next four years as part of Chancellor George Osborne’s plans to cut £20 billion of government spending and deliver a budget surplus by 2019.

The fact is that money is there for flood defence, but UK governments of whatever hue, like governments throughout the world, have pursued policies since the 2008 financial crisis that have concentrated even further wealth in the hands of a tiny rich elite. They have been carrying out a social counterrevolution that involves the repudiation of the very notion of public services and welfare provision as an unacceptable drain of the wealth of the super-rich.

According to figures from the UK Office of National Statistics, there is around £9 trillion of wealth in private hands that is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a small minority. The recently published Bloomberg’s billionaire index reveals that the two wealthiest UK citizens saw their wealth increase by £900 million last year—more than enough on its own to develop and maintain flood defences.

According to Richard Murphy, professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University London, the gap between the amount of tax that should be collected as per government legislation and what is actually collected is around £120 billion a year. This is because the super-rich have made tax avoidance and evasion a fine art. Put simply, corporations and the super-rich do not want to pay tax and are given every opportunity not to do so.

Last year the European Commission, as part of its Action Plan for Fair and Efficient Corporate Taxation, revealed that almost 25 percent of the world’s tax havens on its blacklist were British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies—including Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands—all of which are tied by a thousand threads to the City of London. The Justice Network found that approximately $21 trillion is currently being hidden in offshore tax havens and that the Cayman Islands have over 85,000 companies registered there, more than the country’s population.

At the same time as governments allow the super-rich to get away with paying no taxes, and thus avoiding any contribution to public services, they promote the idea that charities, volunteers and self-help groups can shoulder the burden.

Following the 2007 floods, Labour commissioned a review by Sir Michael Pitt. Despite recommending long-term planning and pointing out the advantages of a well-resourced, publicly funded flood defence system, the vast majority of Pitt’s 92 recommendations barely scratched the surface, and stressed that flood victims should not expect the state to look after them. Instead, local groups contributing to costs themselves rather than central funding should become the rule rather than the exception, with those at risk flood-proofing their homes and preparing emergency kits of torches, wind-up radios, blankets, a first aid kit and a mobile phone.

The Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph expressed this position even more bluntly in its December 28 article “UK Floods: Blame game is cheap—solutions aren’t”.

It noted: “[P]rotection against flooding is one of several hugely sensitive issues the country faces—pressure on the NHS is the most glaring example—in which demand so outstrips supply that an almost limitless amount could be spent. And while the last Labour administration behaved as though infinite sums were available, thankfully we have a Government that believes in economic responsibility.”

The Telegraph insists: “What is required is a realistic debate about systemic pressures on much of our most vital infrastructure, to make clear choices about the fundamental provision from central government and then find innovative ways to finance and renew services beyond that basic threshold … the longer that difficult decisions are put off, the harder the underlying problems will be to solve.”

“Difficult decisions” is a euphemism for further swingeing cuts.

According to the Telegraph the capitalist crisis is such that health care coverage for the population and provision and maintenance of essential infrastructure for a modern functioning society can no longer be provided by the state and the debate must be about how to privatise services, hand them over to volunteers or run them down altogether.

This points to the essential conclusion that to address the underfunding of necessary infrastructure means breaking the political stranglehold of the parasitic rich elite and expropriating its wealth. This can only be achieved by the building of a mass movement of the working class, based on a socialist perspective to reorganise society along the lines of production for need, not private profit.

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