Denise Robertson: Who is to blame for the floods that have swept livelihoods away?

As flooding in the South of the country continues to dominate headlines, Denise Robertson asks who is to blame

Rhys O'Leary/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA Wire Royal Marines wade through floodwater in the village of Moorland in Somerset
Royal Marines wade through floodwater in the village of Moorland in Somerset

Who is to blame for the fact that the people of Somerset struggle as their homes and livelihoods are swept away?

The Chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, £100,000 a year for three days a week, is taking much of the flack but the problem precedes him.

Lord de Ramsay, the Agency’s first chairman, blames the former Chief Executive, Labour’s quangocrat Baroness Young, who was appointed in 2000.

The Baroness’s previous appointment had been Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He accuses her of ‘setting common sense on its head’ by blowing up pumping stations and cutting maintenance such as dredging.

This was reportedly designed to give priority to the interests of ‘habitat’ and ‘biodiversity’ rather than agriculture or residents. Lady Young is famously said to have remarked that she wanted to see ‘a limpet mine attached to every pumping station’. The undredged rivers became clogged with silt, drastically reducing their ability to take floodwater away and farmers and engineers responsible for cleaning the ditches or ‘rhynes’, found that the Environment Agency was forever imposing restrictions on their doing what needed to be done.

However, the Baroness cannot be blamed for emptying the coffers to create a £31 million bird sanctuary because another former chairman took to the airwaves to claim it was built because the EU would have fined the Government if they had failed to build it.

From 2000, residents repeatedly begged for dredging and, much as I love birds, if there was 31 million to spare it should surely have gone on safeguarding homes and livelihoods …not to mention the wildlife now floating dead in the sullen water. If half of those accusations of a deliberate downplay on dredging and maintenance and the interference of the EU are true, the imperilled people of Somerset have a very legitimate grievance.

:: In 2013 the economy showed its strongest growth since 2007, only construction was down.

Chancellor George Osborne has pushed for residential building as a way of reviving construction. I’m all for building affordable homes but we need social housing too.

There are families living in bed-sits, others in exhorbitant rented housing or living- in, unable to see the glimmer of a home of their own.

When you’re down, social housing is what you need, not just a place on a waiting list which never seems to decrease. If you’re not in need, you shouldn’t expect to live in a house subsidised by taxpayers who may earn less than you.

Bob Crow, a trade union leader on £145,000 a year, lives with his partner in a three-bedroom council house and enjoys luxury holidays in the sun.

Mr Crow is entitled to a holiday. He’s entitled to spend his money as he chooses. But why should taxpayers who earn less than him and can’t afford luxury holidays subsidise his rent?

Mr Crow says he has ‘no moral duty’ to move out. ‘I was born in a council house, as far as I’m concerned I will die in one.’ And unless someone passes a law to stop him that’s exactly what will happen.

He will continue to live cheaply and enjoy his holidays while a family living on £20,000 who could do with three bedrooms exists in a B and B.

There are plans afoot to charge wealthy tenants a market rent but unless that extra rent goes to build more houses it will not solve the problem. The answer? Social housing should not come with a lifelong lease. Rent should contain a component which is saved for you. If you are still in need at the end of five years your lease is extended. If you are wealthier the saved part of your rent is your deposit to buy in the private sector.

If you love your house and don’t want to leave your neighbours, which may be how Mr Crow feels, you can buy the house at market price and the proceeds go immediately into new social housing.

That way, everyone could live where they liked but there would be a turnover in social housing which would mean homes always available for those who fall on hard times.

:: Laugh of the week was surely Labour protests that the Tories are stuffing Quangos with their own people.

A BBC Daily Politics graph showed that, in the ‘jobs for the boys’ stakes, Labour is way ahead. In October 2007 official figures disclosed they had appointed 394 of their activists to quangos compared with 96 Tories and 78 Lib Dems. I have no doubt that the Tories are doing it now.

Every party does it and any party which thinks we don’t notice underestimates our intelligence.

:: I’m on Bob Crow’s side when he opposes closing all the ticket offices on the London tube.

Unless you’re a seasoned Tube traveller those stations are terrifying places.

What happens to visitors without an Oyster card, the schoolchild who has lost theirs, the person who just wants to ask advice from a human face? But last week’s strike was a mistake. The battalions of grim-faced walkers striding into work and then home again were not happy.

I found being out in London scary but what must it have been like for the woman in the motorised chair in Holborn who couldn’t cross at a safe crossing because there was gridlock and no gap in nose to tail vehicles.

That’s not a way to get people on your side, Mr. Crow…which is a pity when, this time, your cause is a just one.

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