'Cameron Should See How We're Living': Why Is the Government Still Ignoring Flood Victims?
Two months after the floods ruined their homes, people are still struggling to recover and anger at politicians isn't subsiding.
Two months after Storm Desmond flooded 2000 properties in Carlisle, skips line deserted streets filled with uninhabitable homes. The insides of kitchens and living rooms lie spilled on the pavements. Similar scenes of devastation are apparent across the UK's northern regions, after a winter consisting of the heaviest rainfall the country has ever seen.
For those living in the aftermath, it will be months before life returns to anything like normal. While the waters have subsided, anger at the government has increased. People are questioning failed flood defences, cuts to flood prevention funding and a perceived disinterest in their welfare.
Caroline Parker expects to live with her husband, Dave, and daughter, Emma, in the cramped two-bed static caravan outside of her Carlisle home for at least the next five months. After the first time her house flooded in 2007, Caroline was lulled into a false sense of security due to the construction of expensive flood defences.
"I had no concern whatsoever that we would get flooded again. My thoughts were, 'Don't worry about it. They've spent £38million on the flood defences – it's not going to happen.' Even on the night of the floods I thought, 'It won't happen'," the 52-year-old said.
"Somebody's done something wrong – you don't spend £38million on flood defences for people to get flooded again. It's absolutely unbelievable. You trust what the government say. I felt safe and secure. Nobody's going to want to buy these houses anymore. Not when we've been flooded twice in ten years. We're stuck here."
While organisations tasked with assisting and relieving flood victims, local businesses and the general public "have been wonderful", Caroline is less enthused about her local MP, John Stevenson, and the government in general.
Particularly infuriating for Caroline is Mr Stevenson's seeming prioritisation of the Conservative Party line over the interests of his constituents. The UK is eligible for EU Solidarity Funding to help clear up after natural disasters, but David Cameron has refused to apply for it. Flood victims and North-West MEP Theresa Griffin have told the government they have no right to deny the community much-needed assistance.
"There was a meeting with our local MP in Carlisle. People were demanding to go to Europe for the funds to help because there was a time scale on it, but Cameron won't claim for the money," she said.
"[Mr Stevenson] was very defensive and couldn't answer any of the questions. He just sat there with his arms folded. I thought, 'That's your job to fight for the people of Carlisle. They're who voted you in.' I don't know why he was even there. It wasn't good enough."
In Appleby, Cumbria, many of the residents are also angry. Appleby was flooded by Storm Desmond on 5th December and then again by Storm Eva on 22nd December, when 40 properties were deluged by up to five feet of water. The people I spoke said that the dredging of the river Eden had been neglected by the Environment Agency.
Catherine Coggins' barber shop was ruined in the flood, as well as thousands of pounds' worth of work equipment. She has not been able to earn money since the beginning of December and feels let down by the authorities.
"I don't hold them responsible for the flood, because no one can help that. But they should have been dredging the river before this happened and there's been no financial support since. I'm a single mum with three kids and I've never had to claim benefits before in my life," she said.
"Right at the moment, all I'm getting to live on is £29-a-week child tax credits. [The barbers] was flooded on 5th December and four days later I put the claim in for housing benefit and stuff like that. It's still not sorted out. Why the hell not? I've always paid my taxes. They just want to keep the money for themselves. David Cameron should come up here and see how we're living."
In York, Kylie Smith, 27, is in a similar situation. Kylie worked at the Mason Arms pub, until it was flooded, along with 600 other properties, on Boxing Day. The pub sits just behind the Foss river flood barrier, which failed and had to be opened after being overwhelmed by rising waters. With the Mason Arms completely out of action for the next four months, Kylie has been forced to claim benefits to support her three-year-old daughter.
"I'm volunteering at the pub so I can get back to work quicker. The faster it's cleaned up, the faster I can get back to work and earn some money. When I went to claim Jobseeker's Allowance they were dubious and tried to get me to find another job," she said.
"There's already enough to deal with. I told them 'I'm happy here and if you think about it I'm still working – it's just that I'm working for my Jobseeker's.'"
As for the failed Foss river flood defence, Kylie acknowledges that "if they didn't open it, the flooding would have been even worse – but it should have been replaced or properly maintained to begin with". She is not alone in asking why so many flood defence schemes failed. In 2010 the government reduced flood defence spending nationally by 20 percent, with £115million being cut in a single year.
After floods left much of Somerset underwater in 2013, emergency injections increased spending by £230million, with government officials insisting that funds have increased in real terms over the course of this parliament. However, just weeks before the floods in December, the Yorkshire regional flood committee warned the government that defences were not being maintained well enough. Lord Krebs, a government advisor on flood defences, has also stated that the government is due to underspend by as much as £500million over the next five years.
In the village of Glenridding, on the shore of Ullswater lake in Cumbria, 75-year-old Alan Brown surveys the gutted remains of his home and shop. Glenridding has been flooded three times over the last two months. The floods have been "life-changing" for Alan, who has owned the shop for 33 years and now has no source of income. He says that before the floods, the beck, which runs through the village, was last dredged in 2010, even though it's supposed to be dredged every three years. Prior action wouldn't have prevented the floods, Alan said, but it would have mitigated the effects.
"They've neglected it all for so long and I know they've cut back on flood defences all over the place. Now they've got to throw money at at it, which they are in a way, but it has to be a continuous strategy," he said.
"It's not just in Cumbria. It's Lancashire, Yorkshire, Scotland. It's a thing that's occurring on a regular basis. The government have got to take steps, so it doesn't happen."
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