Nick Herbert is the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Here he writes exclusively for ConservativeHome to share his observations after a day in Cumbria witnessing the clean-up operation after the floods.
I’ve been in Cumbria today to see the areas affected by the floods. I arrived early in Keswick where I met officials from the Environment Agency. Although the river levels had fallen considerably and homes were no longer flooded, the damage to homes had been done. And the water which had got into houses wasn’t just from the river – it was foul water which had risen from the drains.
I talked to fire crews who were pumping flood water back into the river, and discovered that they were from Tyne & Wear and Lancashire. They had been called in at an hours’ notice and had been working on the scene ever since, staying at a local hotel. You cannot fail to be impressed by the professionalism of the emergency services when you see them in action at times like this.
I then travelled to Cockermouth with our PPC for Workington, Judith Pattinson. Again, the river levels had abated and a clean-up operation of streets strewn with debris had begun, but hundreds of people had been evacuated from their homes. We went to one of the rescue centres where evacuees were being given a bed and looked after. We talked to some elderly people who were drinking tea and demonstrating a marvellous British stoicism.
As well as local government officials and social services professionals, many volunteers from local organisations such as churches and the WI were there to help. As one shopkeeper who had managed to re-open in the town told me, the community spirit was extraordinary as people stepped in to help each other. A lady described to me how she had just lent clothes to a neighbour who had lost her entire wardrobe to the flood water.
The media’s constant question to me was whether we had any criticism of the Government over flood defences. My response was that this was not a time for recrimination. The Environment Agency officials told me that the levels of rainfall were unprecedented, and local people said they had never seen the river higher. Of course, when an area has flooded twice within four years, we will need to look sensibly at what more can be done to protect the local community. One 88 year-old resident told the BBC that this was the second time she had been evacuated, and on the last occasion it was six months before she was able to return home.
These events will certainly energise debate over the Floods Bill which has just been introduced in the Commons. In spite of the short amount of time available, we will work constructively with the Government to ensure that essential measures to improve flood defence, following the Pitt Review into the floods of 2007, reach the Statute Book.
But now is a time to thank the emergency services for the superb job which they have done, and in particular to remember PC Bill Barker who died during the rescue efforts last week. We must think about the people who tonight cannot be in their own homes, and make sure that we don’t forget about them and the ongoing support they will need in the weeks and months ahead.