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Will the Winter Storms Wash Away the Harsher Austerity Cuts and Job Losses?

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As the UK is battered and soaked by relentless storms and rain, the public sector and public servants have been called to support communities on a massive and impressive scale.

The fire and rescue service mobilisation is the greatest since 1945. Local authorities across the country are leading both preventive and responsive action; providing shelter and support to vulnerable people; and maintaining essential services. The police are playing a sterling role too and co-ordinating rescue and response activity through local Gold Command arrangements and street level co-ordination. Staff from the Environment Agency are, as political leaders have recognised, making a significant contribution to protecting communities from even worse damage and detriment. And the Met Office forecasters are ensuring that people and the agencies have advance warning of the horrors to come.

Inevitably, in crises such as the current ones, the public's first instinct is to turn to the government and wider public sector and public service staff for protection, support and reassurance. And the public sector in turn expects its contractors and business sector partners to support its endeavours. The role, resources and value of the state become very apparent.

In addition, there is considerable formal and informal local voluntary action too. We have seen the best of local community action and a strong civil society with many examples of voluntary action; neighbours supporting each other; and businesses offering help. This has been invaluable but it is never a substitute for public sector intervention, action and co-ordination; rather, it complements it.

The prime minister has rightly confirmed that more than once that government - i.e. the state - is leading the response and co-ordination of action to protect and support those affected by the adverse weather. He has also indicated that "money is no object" in addressing the immediate response. The irony is, of course, that major cuts have both previously been made and are underway to the very services now in action and to preventative programmes.

The public rightly expects government to show leadership and to act in times such as these. It expects the same of local government and indeed the wider public sector. And it has a right to have this expectation and historically finds the public sector does indeed step up to the mark, with many public servants going the extra mile beyond their contracts.

However, and again ironically, at the very time when the public sector's value is being demonstrated to the full and the government that tells us that it will spend whatever money is necessary to address the current problems, it is the same government that advocates a smaller state; is making unprecedented cuts to public expenditure including to the Environment Agency, local authorities, the police, and the fire and rescue services; and has imposed public sector pay freezes. One wonders if cuts to these critical agencies and services has reduced their capacity to respond to the current events.

Against the backdrop of the storms and flooding, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that the number of people employed in some public services will fall by as much as 40% as a result of the government's deficit programme. The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that the public sector workforce will be reduced by 1.1 million between 2010/11 and 2018/19. The IFS says this is largest fall recorded in the past 50 years.

Yet again, ironically, as a result of 'ring-fencing' of schools and the NHS, the cuts in the public workforce will be greatest in the very services at the forefront of the storm related effort. And despite this, one gets no sense that there will be a review of the speed and depth of the public expenditure cuts and consequential job losses. I do believe that this is a missed opportunity. These storms and their aftermath could and should be a catalyst for a major change in government's plans for revenue and capital expenditure.

There is an urgent need for investment in repair and restoration work as well as longer-term flood and coastal protection infrastructure. Inevitably, this requires government-led revenue expenditure and capital investment. Rebuilding and enhancing flood and coastal defences could (and should) be the impetus for an investment-led growth programme.

Other public services, communities, the homeless and families hurt by the current "welfare reforms" can also make good cases for additional revenue funding.

Of course, the immediate focus must to be ameliorate the misery and damage inflicted by the severe weather - but once the water has receded and the repair work is underway, there should be a debate about the role of the state; the importance of public expenditure and the contribution of public servants; the pace and depth of government cuts and the underlying economic and political policies; and how we are prepared to pay for public services - fairly and collectively.

The natural events of this winter have taken their toll. So too the impact of the government's austerity programme (only 40% of which has, as yet, been felt) is taking its toll. Let's hope that the recent storms will have blown away the harsher and more damaging aspects of the current austerity programme and the underlying political creed.

Around the Web

BBC News - UK floods: Army to carry out 'rapid inspection' of defences

UK storms and flooding | UK news | theguardian.com

UK communities brace for more floods - Europe - Al Jazeera English

35-ft sinkhole opens up in flooded UK as storms leave 3 dead ...

Rising rivers threaten more flood misery for England - CNN.com

UK floods: Army to carry out 'rapid inspection' of defences

UK floods: A day of sunshine but more heavy rain to come

UK floods: 5000 more troops on standby as water continues to rise

UK floods continue to wreak havoc

UK weather: Floods could have devastating environmental impact