A little over a week ago, Southend was hit by a torrential downpour of rain, accompanied by lightning and thunder. The deluge lasted a little over an hour but the excessive amount of rain that fell in that period was extraordinary and few would have predicted it. Besides some of the electrical related damage, including to my Internet router, there was flooding in many of the roads, notably along the sea front, as it turned out that the drainage system was unable to cope with such large quantities of water in such a short time. While the storm raged, I was inside a substantial stone built building listening to a Garth Hewitt Rock Concert (which was very nice thank you) hardly aware of the devastation taking place outside. I only became partly aware of what had happened on my journey home, when observing the water on the roads.
One of the consequences of the storm is the damage caused to properties, some substantial, including the possibility that some businesses may fail as a result, for much of the damage (it seems) is not covered by insurance. Something similar had occurred a year ago and as a result many properties were not fully insured this time round. Sadly, despite the evidence of what would happen if there were to be a re occurrence of what happened last year, little or nothing has been done and we are left with questions like who is responsible, what should have been done and done now, and how to deal with the aftermath in a fair and equitable way, which I hope will focus on the facts rather than pursuing unhelpful witch hunts.
It seems to me that there are several main players in all this: Anglian Water, the Environmental Agency, the Council, the businesses affected, the people (you and me) and the government and there may be more. All have an interest and to varying degrees bear some of the responsibility for what happened and may still happen, and hold parts of the key to providing solutions for the future. Before I turn to each of the six mentioned, I will make some points. The first is the need for facts e.g. who is responsible for what, sometimes buried in the “small print”. As a young political activist, I recall supporting Harold Wilson back in the sixties with his ideas to nationalize the steel industry, and other industries besides, in the interest of the common good. As I later moved to the political right, I saw the dangers to freedom and enterprise of too much state control and was persuaded by the argument that industry will function better with less government control. In the 1980’s and at a time I had money to spare, I did well out of the privatization of several industries, including that covered by Anglian Water, by investing in shares, not because I was convinced selling of the family silver (to quote Harold MacMillan) was the right thing to do but that it was a way of making money. We will never know if things would be better if water remained state owned and is a subject I will shortly turn to. The two other factors worth mentioning, which have recently been pointed out to me, and in case I don’t return to them, is shared space and global warming. Some have argued by doing away with roadside curbs (one of the features of the “shared space” idea) this has added to the problems of water going into buildings. As for global warming, the jury as far as I am concerned is out regarding causes and cures and is beyond the remit of this post, but two flash floods in a year when it is hard for me to recall something similar prior is in all probability not a coincidence and is something to bear in mind when looking for long term solutions.
So what about Anglian water? While I note statements to the effect they are investing and intend to invest considerably in improvements to the infrastructure, I have yet (unsurprisingly) to come across admissions of responsibility as to why Southend was not able to lose the water that fell by the drainage and other systems that are in place. There are indications (e.g. through leaked emails) they were aware of the danger, although it seems to me they should have investigated as a matter of course. The council portfolio holder (Martin Terry), who deals with this area, has attracted publicity by saying that Water companies (often foreign owned) are more interested in shareholder profit than the public good and doing the right thing (sadly, often a comment on the whole capitalist system). This relates to one of the downsides of privatization, for (one hopes) if had remained under state control the public good would have been the key factor. Pertinently, what are the legal obligations and are their moral ones?
The Environmental Agency (EA), as I understand it, is the arm of government that is responsible for looking after or at least overseeing all matters environmental to do with the UK. Precisely, what part they played or should have played in recent events, I cannot say but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect them to be more than passive onlookers? We do know, they have an active interest concerning the issue of flood defences and specifically the re-building of the sea wall. But as one friend pointed out, people are more interested in making sure water from heavy rainfall is adequately drained rather than protect against something that may not happened. However, one of the key factors in the whole saga is one of risk and just as there is the risk around inadequate drainage and has been demonstrated so might there be of flooding and inadequate flood defences, and with far more devastating effects. While I am reluctant to criticize what I do not understand, my feelings e.g. based partly on discussions with the late Brian Efde, who campaigned on this issue, is the EA has not taken a strong enough lead, and needs to.
As many know, the Council consists of two elements: members and officers. Members change and so do administrations but officer’s don’t unless they retire or are sacked / redeployed. Should the Council have done more to prevent what had happened? Should officers have been better directed and have taken the initiative regardless, given their role as public servants? The answer is probably yes to both of these questions, although it would be churlish to blame too much an administration that has been in power for a little over four months. More pertinently, what is the Council’s legal / moral obligation? This is not a theoretical nicety, for lifelong experience teaches me that, when people bay for blood, interested parties tend to go on the defensive in order to safeguard their position. What is worrying is that what we are seeing now is a re-run of what occurred a year ago and yet nothing seemed to have happened since to deal with the issues, or am I mistaken?
Regarding the businesses affected (and residences come to that), I have a lot of sympathy. While some may say they should have planned for such an eventuality, they are at least no worse in this respect than the afore-mentioned parties. One can’t help but sympathise given the prohibitive insurance premiums for businesses fighting to survive. When a friend suggested a community response e.g. club together to help affected businesses recover, in particular one that had played an important part helping the homeless, this was something I wanted to support even though mindful of the impracticability’s. I believe it is right they do get compensated, especially if it can be demonstrated that the damage incurred is a result of a lack of action by those with responsibility to act. Given the renewal of the sea front should be part of the long term plans for the town, this also needs to be taken into consideration.
As for you and me, there may not be much we feel we can do beyond that of being a good neighbor. But surely in what is supposed to be a democracy we should be able to bring to account those agencies that are meant to be acting on behalf of the people. As for government (central as opposed to local) they do have the power to bring pressure on the likes of the local Council, Anglian Water and the Environmental agency. While going down the legal route may not be the best answer if resistance is encountered, government do have power, not least because of their control of money and ability to enact laws. We do well to remind them of their responsibilities, and if need be through the ballot box.
Postscript: Like with much of what one writes, this is often based on incomplete knowledge. Since posting further perspectives and facts have come to light. When discussing damage caused by the floods, I focused on the sea front as that is what the local papers reported. I was since made aware of other areas of the town affected and of issues for buildings next to brooks and streams. Someone mentioned the need for good neighbours, especially toward the elderly and vulnerable, and for drivers to take care by reducing speed when driving in flooded roads. I was also made aware of the Fire and Rescue service, often forgotten at these times but who often have to pick up the pieces when there is danger and damage. They also provide advice as to what to do to protect properties.