Column: the Wets in Local Politics - is Noah ready?
I was up in Rochester in Kent on Saturday knocking doors. I used to do this occasionally as a child, though the main difference then, was that I used to run away and hide in the bushes to enjoy the mystified look on the neighbour’s face.
Sadly, I can’t run fast enough nowadays, so I have to actually wait and talk to them, but what nice folks they were up there. Almost all of them seemed pleased to see me!
What also made it such a lovely day was the blue sky and summery temperature, but then came Sunday with its wet, wintry downpours.
In recent years the associated impact of flooding here in West Sussex has been of growing concern and one which is taken very seriously by our County Council. Sadly, not even they have a magic wand and the funds allocated to address community flood risks are necessarily limited by financial realities. So when I hear from the Westminster elite that “money is no object” to combat flooding, I just have to smile philosophically.
During the current financial year, the County’s so-called Watershed Fund has earmarked £1.1 million, which communities and their pressure groups can bid for in projects to alleviate local flood risk and build community resilience. The degree of risk varies enormously across our territory, of course, but the number of danger zones is considerable when we get a particularly wet spell.
Happily, I managed to secure funding last month for just such an initiative in my own Lancing division. Soon after being elected there, I became heavily involved in setting up our local Floodwatch Group, which is a consortium of various neighbourhood associations, backed by my own UKIP county, district and parish councillor colleagues.
As the underlying causes of our flood risk down here are on a strategic scale, we knew we would not be able to address these within the limited funding opportunities available. We focused our attentions, therefore, on a community seminar to bring a clearer understanding of the geological issues, how the public agencies work together in times of emergency and what homeowners can do to help flood-proof their properties in those precious few hours before the emergency forces swing fully into action.
Over a hundred residents attended the two-hour session and without exception found the expert briefings informative and thought-provoking. The key message was Resilience or in other words: apart from asking what help I can expect from others, what can I do myself to cope in tough times?
This is an attitude, which has waned over recent decades perhaps, as our population has been led to expect ever-growing levels of state assistance in all areas of life. Sadly, as Britain grapples with its fiscal challenges, those levels are now subsiding – just as water levels are rising!
I can’t pretend our event was unique, but I do know that many communities across West Sussex can benefit enormously by taking the initiative to set up and develop their own community flood groups in this way. The range of practical measures available to householders is considerable and the outlay for a typical property would be little more than the increased home insurance premiums that would apply after you have had your first (highly distressing) domestic dousing.
The other big issue that haunts a neighbourhood when experiencing that Noah moment, is how to access the emergency services effectively. As we know, 999 is for life-threatening scenarios only, while you could spend hours chasing 111 to little avail when switchboards are swamped. What we had not been aware of previously, is that every district and borough council has a statutory duty to employ a specialist emergencies officer. This person is pivotal in co-ordinating a broad range of emergency assistance in times of crisis, not just the Blue Lights services, but water companies, power suppliers and highways and environmental agencies, etc.
Accordingly, we have now instigated a small network of community champions on a bespoke hotline, who on behalf of their neighbourhoods, have rapid, direct access to these coordination points.
So, with fingers crossed, we await the coming winter rainfalls. But fingers don’t need to be quite so tightly crossed if you start planning early. I would urge West Sussex residents in flood-risk areas to talk to their own county councillors and see if they can get negotiations under way to establish or further strengthen their own community resilience. There is still the better part of £1 million remaining in the Watershed Fund right now.
Lastly and very importantly, one thing that was apparent at our seminar was the anger of citizens, who perceive local authorities as blandly accepting the imposition of ever more housing development on natural flood plain, despite the clear historic evidence that it is wholly unsuitable. Part of the problem, of course, hinges upon central government loading the dice against true Localism, whereby councils live in fear of incurring the disapproval of the unelected Planning Inspectorate. What a dismal shower our leaders can be.
They say, “If you are in a hole, stop digging”. UKIP says, “If you are in a wet hole, stop building”!