The Cumbria floods: out of the textbooks

Thousands of families made homeless weeks before Christmas, key transport routes torn to shreds by the sheer force of nature, families unable to buy food due to supermarkets being flooded, children unable to sleep because they are frightened of the weather, schools posting homework on their website so their pupils can continue their education, hundreds of farm animals lost and drowned, municipal and local government buildings, major retail outlets and football clubs all under water. ‘Ordinary life’ has ground to an almighty halt for tens of thousands of people. No cameraman or news reporter can possibly convey the sheer magnitude of the environmental chaos that has been visited on vast parts of northern England.

I am Cumbrian to the thousandth generation: my forefathers were Border Reivers, hill farmers, coal miners, Sellafield workers, Labour activists and trade unionists. In 1831, they opened the Carr’s (now McVities) biscuit factory in Carlisle, which has, itself, (twice) been flooded. I know that the iron grit and the uncompromising commitment to community solidarity of the Cumbrian people will pull them through this difficult time – as it has for centuries – through every storm, flood, mining disaster and foot-and-mouth epidemic.

From my Hertfordshire home, 400 miles away, I look on, helpless, not knowing exactly how I can help. I follow the unfolding story on social media, seeking out photos and video footage so I can understand the nature and extent of the damage. I am determined that all of us – wherever we live in the United Kingdom – learn lessons.

Everything about the Cumbria floods challenges our assumptions of our modern world. It exposes the fragility of humanity in the face of nature. And it throws down the gauntlet to capitalism – indeed to every aspect of our modern economy.

Capitalism – in its purest form – would abandon Cumbria to the elements. After all, there are plenty of other warmer and drier places to live with better transport links to major commercial centres. The cost-benefit analysis of relocating would be compelling.

But our Labour values tell us that people are right to value their communities and want to stay in them. And depopulating Cumbria – and other communities on this country’s fringes – only adds to the overcrowding and overpricing of our urban and commuter regions. Rebuilding Cumbria is unambiguously in the national interest.

And that means not abandoning families in Cockermouth who, having been flooded for the third time in 10 years, face home insurance excesses of up to £10,000. Actuaries sit in their offices, they do the maths and, well, insurance companies have to make money somehow – even if it is on the backs of families who have lost absolutely everything. Our values should tell us otherwise.

Flooding exposes the dangers of making economies in the NHS simply on the basis of the balance sheet. Close maternity services at the West Cumberland Hospital and heavily pregnant women are left travelling 45 miles on single carriage, winding roads to Carlisle in order to give birth. But we have seen in recent weeks that storms can tear road networks to pieces. Tear the A595 up and expectant mothers would be cut off from maternity services at precisely the time they need them most.

Capitalism can, however, work in the tourist trade and foster the creation of hundreds of small businesses. After all, Cumbria contains some of the most magnificent countryside anywhere in the world. But it does not work when people cannot get there because the roads have been torn to shreds by the floods and government needs to intervene – potentially at great expense – to rebuild them. And that task will be harder given the enormous cuts to local authority budgets which have been imposed in Cumbria. Many would go further and suggest there needs to be radical improvements to Cumbria’s road network in order for its economy to be able to thrive – even in good weather. But to do this would require public sector investment above and beyond what Cumbria alone can afford. It would need to be seen as part of a centrally planned One Nation Industrial Strategy – in partnership with business – to enable growth to be spread more evenly across the country.

Cumbria has a thriving energy industry – particularly in relation to nuclear – and there are many private sector firms in its supply chain. But this industry – perhaps more than any other – is at the mercy of central government policy. Cut feed-in tariffs or solar subsidies, or amend contracts for difference and the ripple effects can be felt right throughout the supply chain. Deciding for or against nuclear newbuild would put tens of thousands of jobs in Cumbria alone on the line. The strategic challenges of infrastructure in Cumbria mean that it is not an industry that can simply grow organically. Along with improvements in road and rail connections, the National Grid needs to be extended. And the now genuine prospect of a new nuclear power station adjacent to Sellafield will mean that improvements in the local provision of schools, hospitals and housing are necessary. These are not issues that can be left to the market. On the contrary, central government needs to be taking a holistic approach to economic growth, ensuring that infrastructure and public services effectively support the business community.

The Cumbria floods take us out of the textbooks – and out of our political comfort zones. It asks us hard questions about how our economy functions and whether it has the fortitude to withstand the storms. An economic model that fails to provide functioning homes for people who have been flooded three times in 10 years, or provide maternity services to expectant mothers, or brutally slashes the budgets of the very local authorities faced with the task of rebuilding Cumbria – is ideologically bankrupt. Capitalism needs to be constrained for the common good – and so our local economies can thrive.