Monday, 10 February 2014

KEEPING IT LOCAL

The unseemly blame game over the flooding of the Somerset levels is a good reason to return the power of problem-solving into local hands.

Photo nicksarebi Creative Commons
The apparent desire of the government, most recently in the person of Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, to politicise the floods in Somerset by blaming variously the former Labour government and the Environment Agency chairman, Chris Smith, who, as it happens, is a former Labour cabinet minister, may or may not be good for a short term headline, depending upon whether people believe what they are being told.

It is, however, a dangerous tactic, since it allows the impression to be created that the flooding of the Somerset levels is a consequence of a failure of political will, rather than relentless rainfall. It is highly unlikely that either a lack of dredging in the levels or even the  deep cuts to the Environment Agency budget is directly responsible. The problem is the sheer quantity of water collecting on land below sea level, which  has nowhere to go.

By suggesting that this is a political problem with a political solution, the government is in danger of writing a blank cheque against is own credibility. A flurry of highly visible, short-term interventions can be expected in the months ahead, whereas the interventions that are really needed are necessarily much longer term. If, as seems quite possible, the rains return in a year's time with a similar effect, the government will have nowhere to hide.

Having said that, it must be remembered that the Environment Agency itself (founded as recently as 1996) is a creature of the persistent tendency towards the centralisation of government in Britain in the past 30 years. Centralisation and politicisation go hand in hand, in a game of chicken and egg whereby central government, getting the blame for everything that goes wrong, seeks to bring control for that everything within its hands. Then, once it has control of everything, it rightly gets the blame when things go wrong.

The debilitating effect of this blame game is to leave everyone feeling disempowered. The government waves its cheque book pathetically, but everyone knows that its bank account is empty; the Agency, considered by many experts to have done well during the recent unmanageable conditions, is beholden to its government paymasters who kick it around like a political football; meanwhile, local communities and local government have been stripped of their powers to finance and manage flood protection measures in their own way.

What is lacking in all of this is self-responsibility, which can only operate at a local level where self is to be found. The Environment Agency may have a useful advisory role, but communities need to make and fund their own decisions, and then live with the consequences. That funding needs self-responsibility, too, with a major shift in tax-raising power away from central government towards regions and local communities. The connection between what people pay for and what they get is one of the things that keeps a community pulling together in the interests of all.

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