There a many things one can say about Cameron's Big Society. But this blog post is only going to focus on one aspect of it, namely: community flood protection. Whereas I feel more dubious about other ideas, flood protection is the one I think might work very well.
Many previously planned flood alleviation schemes are now facing the axe. Communities across the country will not get the relief they had been promised and had been eagerly waiting for, after many years of repeated flood misery. Each flood causes havoc and costs a lot in both monetary terms and human suffering. Lives, even. The devastating 2007 floods cost the nation £3 billion and 13 people died.
So. What now? The senior decision-makers I have been in contact with seem to suggest we must look at new, quirky ways of finding funding and means to maintain at least some kind of flood protection. At the recent DEFRA conference in Telford, the Environment Agency's Chief Executive, Paul Leinster, described examples from across the country where local businesses, such as ASDA and others had supported local flood schemes. Local levies and maybe Lotery funding. Anything goes, apparently.
Well, I have a cunning plan. In fact - I have two.
Firstly, the plan of communities 'doing it for themselves'. I know it is in line with the new governments thinking of making local people active and engaged in their own wellbeing and future. And I guess there is some truth in that. But I advocated this idea way before it became 'trendy', so those are not my reasons.
Take a community that floods regularly. They need help. Now, you could get them to install door boards and airbrick covers so the water doesn't enter the properties when it floods.
Or - you could provide a one-barrier-does-it-all type of solution, placed in the road between them and the river, to paint a common flooding scenario. With the latter method, no water will even get close to their homes.
The manufacturer could train residents in how to erect the barrier, they could store it in garages, sheds or community halls. Neighbours could share the costs for their barrier or seek funding through grants. Each household can get 5K worth of grant money - or at least could.
Second plan. instead of having Dunkirk-minded people spending their energy on filling and carrying heavy sandbags (Have you tried lifting one!!?), this voluntary workforce could be used in a lot more productive way. If trained by manufacturers, if access to depots of relatively cheap flood barriers etc - help could be at hand a lot quicker. Anyone could become a 'retained flood brigader'. RNLI have already their Flood specialist groups and there are Flood Wardens in certain areas. This is a good start, but we need to get more volunteers involved and teach them how to actually deploy barriers - instead of sandbags. Environment Agency would need to be in the background as well, to support and to give expert advice.
The Cabinet Office has recently ended a consultation into their "Community resilience Project" which covers all sorts of resilience. I believe a Flood Brigade could form part of this. It falls in line with the Big Society concept in that it promotes self-help and that it can actually be beneficial for people to work together - towards a common goal. It strengthens their togetherness. They will meet to plan and decide, they will have coffee mornings and training sessions, refreshers...
All just nice words? Maybe. But given this is a relatively cheap solution, given just one single flood incident costs enormous amounts of money and given the alternative is 'do nothing' - I don't think we have much choice for UK plc.
As for the rest of Cameron's Big Society - I am yet to be convinced. I can see the benefits, but - my worry is whether it is going to be fair for all. Will we end up with poor people having to first pay for services and then actually carry them out, as well?