If you want proof that the Tory government does not care whether people die, look at last year’s £100 million cut to the national floods budget. That’s all too clear where I live in Egham.
Egham is situated on the western part of the Thames, a river which stretches from the outskirts of London, through Surrey and Berkshire, up to Oxford, and across Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Here £1.8 million was cut from the Arklyn Kennels scheme, which involved building up concrete and earth bank defences. £1 million of the funding for the project won’t be available for another four years.
West Drayton, the area near Heathrow which would most benefit from the scheme, has seen massive flood damage. Nearby Poyle, right next to Heathrow, was allocated £375,000 for flood defences by 2013, but has received just 6%. A huge £3.6 million has been cut from a dredging scheme in Penton Hook, close to Staines.
In Surrey, more than 1,000 homes were flooded, and another 2,500 damaged. Firefighters and volunteers had to rescue 1,124 people from flooded homes near the Thames during the days of the flooding (from Tuesday11 February), 850 from within Runnymede. 57 roads were closed. A number of High Volume Pumps (HVP) were used to pump water out of the area, and around 600 staff from Surrey Fire and Rescue Services, and other agencies, worked to relive the flooding.
With absolutely no help from the local Council people in Runnymede organised their own relief effort, and this was nothing short of incredible.
In Egham, a church hall was used as a relief centre. Inside, there was a food bank, a depository of essential things like bottled water (given water contamination) and nappies, and a kitchen making hot lunches for the volunteers. Any leftovers were to be donated to the Runnymede Food Bank.
Next door, the car park of Magna Carta school was used to fill up sand bags, and volunteers drove them to people’s front doors. Community watch groups were set up to safeguard against burglaries. A similar arrangement was made in Chertsey, though I only saw the Egham centre.
Within the Borough (of Runnymede) over a thousand people volunteered at the two relief centres established in Chertsey and Egham Hythe.
The army was present, but they did not interfere in the relief efforts. They were involved in door-knocking, checking if people needed evacuation, and helping to distribute sandbags, and show people how to stack them properly. The vast majority of the organisation was conducted by the local populace.
Everyone contributed what they had — equipment, food, labour power — and everyone took what they needed from the centre. Everyone did the work they felt they were physically and mentally capable of and willing to do. Some people coordinated the effort, but they were granted no special privileges above others. Even when some people were working harder, or others less hard, than others, it didn’t matter, as there were enough volunteers to get everything done. The communistic elements of the organisation of the relief were a balm in the chaos of the flooding.
On Friday 14 February, a full four days after the flooding started, the council heads finally came round to the relief centre, only to announce that they planned to shut it down! The only reason given was... it was not controlled by them.
Surrey residents were already angered by the responses to the floods.
There was the influx of politicians, keen to pose for sombre pictures, but do little else before disappearing.
There was the obvious disparity between relief efforts for rich and poor — there has been a national mobilisation of flood agencies and the military to protect Windsor Castle. Meanwhile, local residents were left to fend for themselves. (The creation of the Jubilee River, opened in 2002, designed explicitly to protect the royal estate in Windsor from Thames flooding, is another visible reminder of this divide — it cost £110 million and is the largest man-made river construction in the UK).
Now the unelected executives of the Council asserted their right to shut down the relief centre, and even used the police to deny people entry to the water bottles and hot soup inside. In Runnymede, residents were also angry at the local council for failing to deliver sand bags; neighbouring boroughs Spelthorne, and Windsor and Maidenhead, had received their sand bags already. The residents shouted the executives out of the church hall, one person throwing their coffee over the Mayor. The council should have been involved in the first place, but in their absence, the community was right to reject the council’s attempts to shut down the centre.
Over the weekend, the council organised more sand bag distribution, and coordinated fire and rescue service involvement. The relief centre has been largely left to function by itself, with a few council overseers helping in the administrative functioning of the centre, and liaising with local services.
It has recently come to light that Woking company Specialist Group International has been employed by Surrey County Council since 2012 on a lucrative £690,000 a year deal to attend to water rescue incidents. They were also used to scab during the fire station strikes last year.
Local firefighters have complained that they were willing and able to attend to flood rescue, but that the outsourcing of the water rescue aspect of their jobs meant they were prohibited from doing so. One unnamed firefighter, speaking to “Get Surrey”, explained "We are on standby, waiting to be deployed but we are not being used... we are paying a private company money for things we could be doing." Surrey FBU Secretary, Richard Jones, said that “It is not acceptable that emergency cover is being cut in Spelthorne while taxpayers’ money is being turned into profit for a private contractor.” This privatisation is a large contributory factor in explaining the huge delay in attending to the floods.
Whilst firefighters did become involved in rescue efforts, additional pressure has been placed on them.
On 4 February, Surrey County Council voted to merge the two fire stations at Staines and Sunbury. This will mean an increase in response times, some redundancies, and a reduction in services available. A public consultation found that 92% of respondents were not in favour of fire station cuts, and a petition demanding the stations be left open gained some 10,000 signatures*. Despite widespread opposition, the cuts were voted through anyway. Richard Jones said of the vote, that “this decision will put the lives of firefighters and the public at greater risk. Surrey’s on-call fire stations have been understaffed for years and on the day of the council’s meeting 10 of Surrey’s 12 ‘on-call’ fire engines were unavailable because of crew shortages”.
The community’s respect for the firefighters was visible outside Staines Fire Station, where innumerable flowers were laid out of respect for Clifford Cox, a 53 year old firefighter who died in Staines Fire Station on the 15 February in an incident unrelated to the floods. The fight against fire station closures continues, led by Save Our Services in Surrey, of which the local FBU is an affiliate.
There are many eco-struggles in the UK – fracking, flood defences, tar sands, eco-villages, No Dash for Gas, wind turbine planning, overfishing, forest destruction - and socialists should engage with them all. With the pace of climate change unabated, and the links between austerity and environmental damage made more apparent, the need for class-struggle environmental politics is necessary more than ever.
*A new petition has been launched