DRIVING around the Westcountry recently was a salutary experience – with many communities feeling the misery of flooding. Central Devon has not been affected as much as the Somerset Levels, but for everyone in the firing line it is a ruinous experience.
To see a home where the water has trashed furniture, left damp up walls and callously strewn personal effects about the floor is to feel something of the loss suffered by those affected.
I have vivid memories of just such sights when I visited Kennford and Buckfastleigh after the November 2012 deluge.
The Prime Minister has been in the Westcountry to view the damage himself and I was pleased to see it – there is no substitute for first-hand experience in order to fully grasp the seriousness of the situation.
He came 18 months ago to my constituency – to Buckfastleigh to speak with local people and better understand the issues. The number of people affected nationwide has grown as low pressure weather systems drifted relentlessly over the UK and the rain fell on found already saturated ground. Returning to normal may take months.
There has been a certain amount of blaming with the Environment Agency coming in for criticism. I think we are wrong to cast about pointing the finger – surely it’s a case of these weather conditions being absolutely extraordinary.
We have had the wettest January since 1766 and the East coast has experienced the greatest tidal surge for 60 years. Vital infrastructure such as the Dawlish rail track has been destroyed with knock-on effects for commuters and businesses right across the region.
Yes, rivers probably should have been dredged – although it has to be said that the arguments around that are less clear-cut than many imagine.
But what matters now is surely how we respond over the coming weeks and what we do in the future to make sure that events of this nature are as contained and manageable as they can be.
Buildings on flood plains combined with periodic exceptional weather events will mean that we never get to the point where no one is affected, but we can do better. The Government has already committed to investing more in flood defence creation and maintenance than ever before – £3.1bn over the life of this Parliament.
Just a week ago we also announced an additional £130m to ensure that the EA can address the winter flood damage without impacting the 2014/15 flood defence programme.
Some 55 new flood schemes will commence in 2014/15 providing additional protection for 42,000 extra households in addition to the 160,000 already better protected during this parliament. The programme of flood defence work can be found at http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/planning/118129.aspx. Looking further ahead the the DEFRA secretary will be announcing details of a new pipeline of flood protection capital projects for up to 2021.
Only by thinking ahead and investing for the long term can we begin to confront the recurrent dangers of water.
I WAS busy right across the constituency last week, including a visit to the Devon Highways Department to discuss road safety issues in Copplestone and on the A377 running from Cowley through Crediton.
Whilst there I was shown their incident centre which monitors weather conditions and road related issues right across the county – huge screens showing meteorological data and CCTV output adorn the walls all accompanied by the busy click of information flowing in and out from key services and the media.
I was also in Crediton to visit a fantastic local business ‘Fix Auto’ run by Louise Woolacott and her family. This award winning company provides vital local employment. In Okehampton I met with Paula Anscomb who runs the local credit union Plough and Share which provides affordable responsible finance as an alternative to some payday lenders who charge interest rates of up to 4,000 per cent.
She and her wonderful team are based in East Street – more at http://www.ploughandshare.co.uk. In Chudleigh I spent time at the local youth club and held a series of surgeries with the young people there to discuss their concerns.
I held a meeting with the Community Forum in Buckfastleigh to discuss local planning concerns. Afterwards I spent time in Crediton viewing the proposals for the new Mid Devon local plan with its options for residential and commercial development over the next 15-20 years.
Back in Okey I visited Oaklands Park, the park home site on the north west of our town to discuss site issues and the new legislation that will better protect park home owners and which comes into force in April. I met with several local councillors in the area and also held surgeries in Zeal Monachorum, Northlew and Hatherleigh. For details of my upcoming surgeries please visit www.melstridemp.com.