The floods come just a month after similar downpours wreaked havoc in Doncaster, Sheffield and Hull. In Hull alone, 20,000 homes were damaged and 7,000 people are still living in hotels and temporary accommodation. The Association of British Insurers reckons the total bills for repair and clean up of the two floods will reach £2 billion. The floods are now officially worse than the 1947 floods.
This is a national emergency yet the government's response has been totally inadequate, as have the solutions proposed by the other capitalist parties, the Tories and Liberal Democrats.
Eerily echoing the instincts of the US National Guard, whose initial response to the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 was to shoot black residents suspected of looting, the West Mercia Constabulary immediately put out a warning about "opportunist thieves... targeting abandoned vehicles". Property first: that's the mantra drummed into the heads of these defenders of capitalism.
Almost all capitalist politicians accept that these floods are in part due to climate change; as sea temperatures rise, more water evaporates, leading to heavy, torrential rains. Yet there is a gulf between this recognition and appropriate action because of capitalism's dependency on private property, national boundaries and profits.
At one point Gordon Brown told the BBC, "Obviously like every advanced industrial country we're coming to terms with some of the issues surrounding climate change. It's pretty clear that some of the 19th Century structures we're dealing with - infrastructure and where they were sited - that is something we're going to have to review." Leaving aside the fact that scientists are clear that increased rainfall is not an issue "surrounding" climate change, but a direct result of it, the prime minister blithely went on to portray the disaster affecting hundreds of thousands as a one-off event: "This has been, if you like, a one in 150 years set of incidents that has taken place in both Yorkshire and Humberside and now in Gloucestershire and the Severn."
Brown is desperate to avoid spending money on real defences and modernising the infrastructure, so he tries to make out that, because this scale of flooding has not been seen before, it won't be seen again. Yet scientists at the UK Climate Impacts programme predicted the increased frequency and intensity of floods a decade ago, and the department for the environment warned that the government was poorly prepared for the aftermath of such floods in 2004 and 2005. In his renowned "prudence" the iron chancellor chose to ignore the advice.
Baroness Young, head of the beleaguered Environment Agency, said that cash-strapped councils and "their water companies" (long ago privatised!) had to improve and repair the Victorian sewage and drainage systems. Hilary Benn announced an "independent review" while only promising to "tighten up" the "advice" regarding plans to build three million homes, many on flood plains, by 2020. Housing Minister Yvette Cooper has said that it is "unrealistic" not to build residential housing in flood-risk areas.
Gordon Brown personally cut the Environment Agency's forward planning budget by £15 million last year. Now the government has agreed to raise the capital expenditure budget for the agency from £600 million to £800 million by 2010-11. The total inadequacy of this was revealed by Baroness Young, when she told the BBC that work on the flood defence systems alone would cost £1 billion a year.
Emergency programme on the floods
We cannot trust the capitalists or their politicians, who serve them, to protect the population and our communities from the effects of global warming, let alone to reverse it. We therefore call on the working class movement, environmental campaigns, tenants and residents' associations and anticapitalist youth to launch a mass campaign to force the government: a) to fund a massive programme of public spending for the expansion of the flood defences, and b) to take serious action to minimise the impact of climate change.
The necessary measures should be paid for by an emergency tax on the rich to ensure that the flood crisis is not used as an excuse to further attack our public services, such as the NHS, with cuts.
The state should fully underwrite the costs of evacuation, clean-up operations, repairs and rebuilding that are made necessary because of the floods. Private insurers should be forced to pay up in full to residential and small business customers - those that refuse to do so, that hike up premiums to squeeze flood victims, or that refuse to renew victims' insurance should face nationalisation without compensation. All politicians and climate change experts agree that such disasters will occur again in the future; to prepare for this we need a basic state insurance system that can underwrite disaster losses without exploiting victims. The major insurers should be nationalised and merged into a single state-owned not-for-profit insurer.
There must be no council tax rises to fund repairs or flood defences; tax the rich, not the poor through steep taxes on corporate profits and unearned wealth.
The local working class, with help from the appropriate unions and trusted experts, should estimate the extent of the damage, priorities for the emergency work, and oversee the clean-up and repairs.
Climate change can be slowed, halted and eventually reversed. However, repeat flooding on the scale seen in 2007 is, in the immediate future, a reality. Therefore, Britain's flood defences, infrastructure and plans for new construction, e.g. homes, must take in severe flooding as a probability. The full resources necessary must be made available by the state; the work must be carried out under workers' control and by nationalised industries: construction, utilities, etc. The privatised water companies should be nationalised, without compensation to the former owners, and run under workers control.
Ironically, news of the full scale of the floods was still trickling in, as Housing Minister Yvette Cooper was unveiling the new Green paper on Housing in the Commons. The class bias of the Labour government's response to the housing shortage was clear: three million homes by 2010, barely 70,000 of which will be "affordable" and only 45,000 for the rented sector.
In other words, Labour is responding to the plight of middle class and high-earning workers' fears of rising house prices. Millions are living in overcrowded and substandard housing and need cheap homes for rent. Yet their needs are accounted for by just 1.5 per cent of the new homes, while those who can barely afford a partial mortgage (so-called shared equity) will have to scramble for a paltry 25,000 new homes over the next three years. Should there be a spike in interest rates, or a surge in unemployment over the next 25 years -a near certainty under capitalism - the mortgage lenders will repossess even some of these.
Cooper tried to divert criticism of the government's plans to build new homes in areas of high risk by reference to York and London: "You know, [York] was built by the Romans in a flood plain. Downing Street - 10 Downing Street is in a flood plain. So if you've proper protection and if you've got proper defences in place, you know new homes have to be safe."
However, this master of spin should deceive no one. York is one of the most frequently and severely flooded of all English cities; it would be criminal to build more houses there at the present. Similarly, Downing Street has defences that could withstand a nuclear attack, let alone a flood. Is Cooper saying that the cheaper type of homes she is proposing will all enjoy the benefits of Downing Street-style defences? No, of course not. Labour's worship of the market will dictate that it is precisely the "affordable" homes that will be built in high-risk areas with inadequate defences.
It may well be necessary to build some new homes are in fact built in flood plains. But they should be constructed neither in the highest risk areas, nor without the necessary precautions built into the houses and the infrastructure. Furthermore, housing should be a right for all, not a commodity on the market, which by its very nature ensures that there is a sub-standard range of accommodation for those that cannot afford decent homes.
We demand that the government builds all three million new homes to solve the shortage. These homes should be built for cheap rent in the public sector; they should include the latest technology available for reducing carbon emissions and waste; they should be built in the safest possible areas. The working class, through tenants' associations/neighbourhood committees and unions, should decide on where such homes are built and what type of homes are built.
Climate change and socialism
These floods should bring home to everyone just how ill prepared the capitalist state is for coping with the effects of climate change. So-called green taxes, designed to encourage consumers to buy more environmentally friendly products and services, carbon trading, where the giant multinationals and rich nations buy up the "right to pollute" of other capitalists and semi-colonial countries, and other market mechanisms are completely inadequate. Carbon trading even seeks to maintain massive expansion plans for carbon emitting industries in the advanced countries by forcing the less developed countries to bear the brunt of fighting climate change.
The capitalists are too blinded by greed and private ownership, and too divided by nation states, to deliver a truly global response to climate change. But the crisis is global by definition. The international working class is the only force that can impose a global solution - one that can combat climate change, free from the constraints of private profit and nationalism. This can only happen under a democratically planned economy: socialism. The working class movement worldwide should fight for:
A planned global shift away from the production of energy based on fossil fuels and from carbon emitting technologies. Redeployment of workers in scaled down or closed industries with no loss of pay or conditions.
Nationalise the construction, utilities, energy production, and transport industries, under workers' control, with no compensation to the former owners, so that we can plan future development in a sustainable way, for need not greed, taking the impact of development on our climate into account.
The struggle to defend the environment and reverse its deterioration is part of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism in the 21st century, and to bring to an end the system of environmental degradation, exploitation, poverty and war.