After the deluge, by Alex Klaushofer

13 Sep 07
As the summer floodwaters that hit much of southern England and Wales receded, so did media interest.

14 September 2007

As the summer floodwaters that hit much of southern England and Wales receded, so did media interest. But how are public services in the affected areas coping in the aftermath? Alex Klaushofer visited one of the worst-hit English counties, Gloucestershire, to find out

Inside the Lanes Court sheltered housing scheme, fans and dehumidifiers are roaring away, trying to chase the dampness out of the air. It's been weeks since the floodwaters that engulfed the Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury receded, but their after-effects are all too present. The walls bear tide-marks showing the two-foot level reached by the nearby River Swillgate, and a riveresque smell lingers in the corridors. Almost everything has been ripped out – the bare concrete floors no longer have carpets, and kitchens and bathrooms have been stripped back to their plaster.

Half the inhabitants of the 26 flats – all elderly people, some in their nineties, most with some sort of disability – are staying with relatives or other housing providers while the clean-up is completed. Jane Williams, who manages the scheme on behalf of Severn Vale Housing Society, the registered social landlord that is the main housing provider for Tewkesbury Borough Council, says that this vulnerable group is having difficulty in coming to terms with the sudden loss of their homes.

'The main challenge is to get them all back in, in the quickest time possible,' she says. 'They would love to come back in now. When I go and visit, they're always asking, “How's it going?”,' I haven't the heart to tell them that it's going to be ripped apart.'

Lanes Court is just one example of the thousands of people and services affected by this summer's unprecedented flooding. While swathes of southern England and Wales went under water, Gloucestershire was the worst-hit county, with tens of thousands of people losing water and power supplies. For weeks, blue water bowsers stood on street corners, with queues of people lining up to get their emergency supplies. Rumours about the extent of the crisis – such as the possible evacuation of half a million people, since denied by the army – abounded, while the floods claimed three lives. Tewkesbury, at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, was one of the worst-hit areas, and aerial pictures of the town surrounded by green-brown flood waters became the iconic images of Britain's summer of floods.

But although the attention of the mainstream media has now moved off the flood story, local public service providers are knee-deep in the recovery operation. Clearing out flood-damaged houses and getting victims back on their feet is the top priority. One of the first things Tewkesbury council did was to lay on a free rubbish collection of all the flood-damaged furniture and white goods. Now, along with the county's six other councils, the authority has just completed a house-to-house survey of the flood-damaged homes. 'In Tewkesbury, we managed to do this in four days, and get around 1,500 people,' says housing services and improvements manager David Steels.

The information will be used to assess claims for help with refurnishing homes. As many people did not have insurance, it's a question of quietly directing the limited funds to the most needy. 'We're not advertising, but identifying,' says Steels. 'We're trying to help the most vulnerable people at least to be comfortable.'

Much of the money will come from the Gloucestershire Flood Relief Fund, a pot of £600,000 and rising, run by a charity set up to meet flood-recovery needs. Its movers and shakers are largely council officials, who have responded to the lack of public funding for flood damage in an imaginative way. 'There was no body to turn to – that's why we all got together and plugged the gap,' says Tewkesbury's head of central resources, George Hill.

Along with most of the other service providers involved, the council's housing advice manager is pleased that the emergency response has generally been acknowledged as having gone well. During the worst weekend of the floods, Val Smith and her team stayed up all night, dealing with the 233 residents driven out of their homes. Weeks on, with the 74 people still needing accommodation mostly staying with relatives, it looks as if the crisis has passed. But Smith is expecting more flood fallout. 'Seventy-four out of 1,500, and only four homelessness applications – where's everybody else gone?' she says. 'It's not a case that the floods have happened and we've done everything we can to help – there's going to be a huge impact for the next six months.'

One likely consequence is that, with registered social landlords giving most of their available stock to flood victims, many people on the council's 2,500-strong housing waiting list will have to wait even longer for accommodation. Smith also expects more homelessness applications as the psychosocial consequences of stressed families living in overcrowded conditions start to bite. 'Those relationships are already starting to break down,' she says. 'I think they're going to come out of the woodwork on a regular basis over the next six months.'

As it would be difficult rehousing many more people in this small, rural authority, which is already short of reasonably priced accommodation, Smith is considering innovative measures to pre-empt a housing crisis born of family breakdown. 'It might be that we provide bed and breakfast on a weekend basis, to give them some respite from each other,' she says.

Smith's concern about the longer-term impact of the floods is shared by other public service providers in the county. The staff of Gloucestershire County Council – evacuated for fear of a breach in the nearby river quay at the height of the floods – are getting back to normal in their Shire Hall offices. But it is hardly business as usual. Chief executive Peter Bungard has written to the prime minister pointing out that while the Bellwin scheme, which provides emergency financial assistance to local authorities, will provide £3m, this doesn't cover the costs of the huge recovery operation, estimated to be around £55m.

One of the biggest costs is the estimated £25m needed to repair the roads and transport infrastructure – a task that falls to Rob Vale, asset manager of the county's highways department. His map of the road network is full of thick wiggly red lines marking the roads damaged by fast-moving flood waters. His team has, he says, identified 420 new schemes in addition to the 240 works planned before the floods.

The council has had to reprioritise its highway maintenance programme as a result, putting off some repairs until the next financial year and others even further into the future. 'The impact now could go on for two, three or four years in knock-on effects and increased costs,' he says.

Part of the challenge is communicating with the public about the rejigged priorities. So far, the department's letters to local councils and councillors explaining the new position have been met with understanding, as the Dunkirk spirit of the crisis unites people. But Vale acknowledges that, as the longer-term impact of the floods continues to bite, public attitudes might change. 'We do understand that people's memories are really short and they may say, “Well, the floods were last week, why can't you do this scheme?”,' he says.

In the meantime, Gloucestershire's flood victims are likely to have more personal issues than just potholes to worry about. 'From a public health point of view, it will be the stress and worry that manifests itself in the months to come,' says Lawrence Knight, communications manager for the Health Protection Agency South West. While he is confident that the complex messages about health at the height of the emergency – such as whether it is safe to breast feed while drinking bowser water – were taken on board, he thinks that the real cost of the floods to health lies in the future.

'It's actually the psychosocial impact a few weeks and months down the line that the health service notices,' he says. 'GPs may soak up a lot of that. The demands could come from people who haven't any kind of history of mental health problems, due to the stress of being out of their houses.'

At the Church Street Practice in the heart of Tewkesbury, doctors are already starting to feel the effects of life after the floods. 'You're seeing people you've never seen before, unable to cope with it,' says GP Dr Robert Davis. 'I suspect we'll be using more antidepressants than usual over the next few months.'

But the real need, he says, is for the more resource-intensive talking cures that are so difficult to get on the NHS. 'The need is for people to have somebody to talk to, and that currently is not available from the primary care trust.'

The surgery – which also has a lingering smell of river – has just had its power supplies restored after its cellar was flooded. The practice briefly evacuated to the borough council's offices up the road, before coming back to hold surgeries with the help of generators. Dr Davis describes the experience of providing health care without phones, computers or adequate lighting. 'It was extraordinary,' he says. 'You're back to basic medicine.'

Practice manager Jan Lowe recalls the experience with a shudder. 'The nurses were doing smears using a torch – some of the days were so dark,' she says. She has nothing but praise for the council during the height of the crisis. 'Everything we wanted was procured from somewhere,' she says. 'Nothing was too much trouble.'

Not all the locals are so happy with what is being done for them, however. The weeks since the floods have seen a resurgence of long-held anger about building on the county's flood plains. Some of the town's houses bear slogans in the windows like 'Don't Drown Our Town' – the fruit of a recent demonstration against the government's policy of allowing building on flood plains. 'We feel that the problems are exacerbated by allowing developments on flood plains. We want them to stop it immediately,' explains Mike Wilson, clerk to Tewkesbury Town Council. 'This latest traumatic event has really heightened that feeling. Feelings are running high.'

Meanwhile, political signals about not using the floods as an 'excuse' for Nimbyist campaigns against flood-plain development have come from minister for the Southwest Ben Bradshaw and housing minister Yvette Cooper.

But according to Tewkesbury Borough Council's planning policy manager, Toby Clempson, local anxiety about flood-plain building is unfounded. 'We don't build on the flood plain,' he says. He cites Wheatpieces, a controversial housing development just outside Tewkesbury as an example of building that – while surrounded by flood plain – actually sits on safer ground.

'There is certainly a perception locally among some people that it is built on flood plain, but it isn't. There are local authorities that have allowed building on flood plains, but anybody who tried to get away with that here wouldn't last long, because there's flooding every year.'

With all the authorities involved having to negotiate a careful path between local and national imperatives, it's an issue that is sure to be another legacy of the floods of 2007.


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