As the mopping up continues following the floods we can breathe a big sigh of relief that Exeter’s defences did their job. Although water levels were worryingly high at their peak last weekend we did not suffer the devastation we used to before the defences were built back in the 1960s. But, as I’ve argued repeatedly in the Echo and elsewhere catastrophic flooding poses a real and present danger to our city. The Environment Agency – the independent body that did such a great job keeping us informed during the floods – has warned upgrading Exeter’s flood defences is the top priority in the whole of the South West. The protection that’s kept us safe for the last 50 years is not adequate for the more regular and worse flooding expected because of climate change. The Government cut investment in flood defences by 30% when it came to power. I argued at the time that was a false economy, as for every £1 you invest in flood defences you save £8 in the long run from flooding damage and the costs associated avoided. The Government has also passed responsibility for some of the funding for schemes to local councils and businesses. Exeter City and Devon County councils have already said they’d be willing to pay their fair share to upgrade Exeter’s defences – in spite of the cuts they’ve suffered. It’s now time for the Government to step up to the mark. More and more economists are saying we need more investment in infrastructure to get our stagnant economy moving and save money in the long run. There’s no better place to start than flood defences.
The Government also needs to renew the deal urgently with the insurance industry that ensures householders and businesses can get flood insurance at affordable levels. This deal, established by the last Labour Government, runs out next summer and the Government had promised it would be renewed by last July so people renewing their annual policies would not be hit. Premiums are already going up and some people face the real prospect of not being able to get insurance. There is no country in the world, including the United States, that leaves flood insurance to the free market. They all have some level of risk sharing and government underwriting. If the rumours are correct that the blockage is in the Treasury, Mr Cameron, who promised to do all he can to help the flood affected areas over the weekend, needs to have and quick firm word in Mr Osborne’s ear.
Amid all the concern about the flooding we shouldn’t forget a young woman was tragically killed by a falling tree in Exeter during Saturday’s storms. Details are still emerging, but it seems the 21 year old was sheltering in a tent with some other homeless people on Western Way, close to the city centre. Those who survived are still being treated for their injuries. Until we know more about the dead woman’s circumstances and how she came to be sleeping in a tent in such atrocious conditions we need to be careful about drawing conclusions. But here are some facts about homelessness in Exeter and the impact that recent changes in Government policy have had on it.
Last year the Government cut the amount of money it gave Devon County Council to prevent and combat homelessness by 12%. More importantly, the Government removed what is called the “ring fence”, meaning that the remaining reduced funding no longer had to be spent tackling homelessness, but the county council could spend the money as it wished. Conservative run Devon decided to cut funding by a whopping 44%. Spending of £6.2 million in 2010/11 was reduced to £3.5 million in 2011/12. In Exeter alone we lost 204 so called “supported bed” spaces. These are places where homeless people find refuge and the support they need to get themselves together and move on to permanent more independent accommodation. The cuts affected around 20 organisations in Exeter including the YMCA, Gabriel House, the Bridge Project and Mortimer House. At the time, Exeter City Council said: “We have significant concerns about the likely impacts which the changes to the County Council’s funding for housing related support will have on vulnerable people in the city. These concerns have already been expressed directly to Devon County Council; the Adult Safeguarding Board; senior DCLG officials and to Grant Shapps the Housing Minister.”
Like most fellow Anglicans and non-Anglicans I was shocked and dismayed by the Church of England Synod’s rejection of women bishops. Women have served parishes admirably in and around Exeter as priests for 20 years. We have an excellent female Canon at the Cathedral and female Deans at Salisbury and, soon, York. The Church needs to reverse this decision and do so within months, not years.