This winter, Britain witnessed all-too-familiar sights. The horrendous impact of flooding across Yorkshire & Humber and many other areas in the UK is clear: tens of thousands of households being left without power or adequate living conditions, public services being suspended and businesses closing for prolonged periods. Piecing together the devastated communities is not something that will happen overnight, nor without great cost.
George Osborne has promised £50m to rebuild flood affected areas across the country — but this falls well short of the estimated £500m that is actually needed to restore normality. The European Commission has made it clear that the UK is eligible for EU Solidarity Funding to help bridge this funding gap (and in 2015, Bulgaria, Italy and Romania received €66.5 million from this fund to help cope with similar severe flooding), but so far, no application has been made by the Government.
The reason? It seems that some elements in the government don’t want to receive ahead of the referendum — an astonishing position, putting partisan politics ahead of people.
There are also claims that any funds received will be deducted from Britain’s rebate. However, this isn’t quite true: the UK rebate mechanism refunds to the Treasury about two thirds of the difference between what Britain pays into the budget and what it gets out. It follows that, if we get extra receipts, the difference will be smaller and so the rebate will be smaller – but not by as much. It’s therefore worth asking for the money, even from a national point of view, and certainly from the point of view of the communities concerned. Such funds would also constitute direct help that would go directly to the communities concerned, unlike the rebate which is paid into central government coffers. Could this be another reason for government reluctance?
For its part, UKIP saw this winter’s flooding as an excuse to blame Brussels (not a surprise, but a change from their members’ previous attempts to blame flooding on same-sex marriage!) This time, they claimed that EU rules on dredging rivers were a contributing factor.
Unsurprisingly, this crude attempt at politicising the UK’s floods is wide of the mark. The EU-wide agreement on water quality (known as the Water Framework Directive) allows for each country to decide its own rules on how to manage their water courses and no EU legislation imposes a blanket ban on dredging. The only circumstance in which countries have jointly agreed not to dredge rivers is when that would disturb certain habitats. However, the directive clearly states that in advance of flooding events, a country is perfectly entitled to apply appropriate water management policies to minimise the impact.
Even if Yorkshire’s and Cumbria’s rivers had been dredged ahead of recent floods, there is little evidence to suggest that the situation would be any different — as dredging usually just sends problems downstream, from rural to urban areas, where the damage to homes and businesses can be much higher.
UKIP’s usual nonsense aside, the fact remains that many communities across the country are not receiving the financial support so need to rebuild homes and businesses – whilst EU Solidarity Funds sit untapped. Linda McAvan and I have written to the government to urge that EU Solidarity Funds be accessed as soon as possible to help meet some of the growing costs of repair across the region. I’ll update this blog with any reply we receive.