The tragic floods in Cumbria and other parts of the north of England and Scotland remind us of the importance of public services and public service.
Whether it is the police officers, local authority staff, ambulance and other NHS staff or engineers from the Environment Agency and members of the armed forces, these public servants have been at the forefront of responding to the calamitous floods over the past days. They have been supported by a number of local and national voluntary organisations including the Red Cross and the RNLI. Contractors too from the business sector will have responded to their public sector clients and their communities, whilst local agencies and staff have been supported and assisted by colleagues from across the country.
In such a crisis like this, the public sector responds, co-ordinates and offers practical support, comfort and recovery for communities and individuals. We never doubt that it will do so, and there is no requirement on those affected to have to pay for the necessary immediate and longer-term rescue activities. We all pay for this through taxation.
Flood defence systems are also funded through public expenditure and public investment. Such infrastructure is core to the economic, environmental and social strength of the nation, as it is in other countries across the globe.
It is important to salute and thank the thousands of public servants and volunteers who have responded so magnificently to the horrendous and unprecedented events across Cumbria and elsewhere. Families, communities and businesses have all benefited from this professional response. Those involved should be acknowledged.
However, in doing so, I think it is worth noting that the immediate and long term response has been co-ordinated by 'local' agencies including local authorities and the local police, with support from 'locally' based NHS trusts and the 'local' fire and rescue services. These local agencies commonly invoke mutual support protocols to secure the much needed and willing offered additional support from their sister agencies across the country. This does not require a national government response, or for ministers to call a COBRA meeting (essential as this may be over time).
I believe that some of the really significant messages that are demonstrated by the response to this tragedy are the importance of local public services and their staff, the importance of local leadership based on place, the contribution that mutual aid makes, and the vital role that the voluntary sector and volunteers make.
It is a fact that the demands placed on local authorities and other public agencies during these past days came within a fortnight of the Chancellor's Autumn Statement and Spending Review that saw deep cuts in funding to core local bodies, especially local government. One has to ask if, in the future, whether local authorities will have the resources to respond as effectively if they have to cut a further thirty plus per cent of their budgets? The Government has promised to refund much of the costs that will be incurred as result of these floods but the key issue is what critical capacity will exist to respond. Given the impact of climate change including recent severe weather trends means that government additional funding after the event is of secondary importance. Floods and similar disasters require the resource capacity to initiate 'immediate' responses; and they require investment in prevention. The Government has cut such investment.
Whether it is dealing with the aftermath of flooding or other significant crises or just the everyday demands of communities, the public sector has to be properly funded. Is it asking too much to think that the Government might reconsider its Spending Review priorities in light of the floods? And that it might consider greater investment in prevention, including across the piece? Probably. And this, despite the fact that capital investment and investment paid through revenue expenditure can demonstrably save money in the longer term and offer hope, opportunity and safety to the public. Surely the latter approach should be a government priority? Sadly, it does not seem to be.
Similarly, it is important to invest in those who work within public services, whether employed directly in the public sector or by organisations working for it. This includes decent pay - so what about every public agency signing up to the Living Wage, professional development for all their employees, and requiring their contractors to do the same? Instead, public sector pay has been frozen or increased at very low rates so that over the last few years, real pay levels have fallen and the number of jobs has been cut.
The importance of public services and those who work in them has been clearly recognised through the media and political response to the floods. However, this recognition must not be allowed to last only for a few days. It should be capitalised upon. This means that the case for a thriving and well-funded public sector and services has to be made in ever increasing volume, as does the case for funding these services through fair progressive local and national taxation. And personally, I believe that it also means challenging the notion that the financial deficit has to be reduced so dramatically and in the way that is currently planned. In particular, the cuts to local government funding should be reviewed urgently.
Living many miles away from Cumbria and the affected areas, it is hard to imagine the distress, pain, grief and hardship that is and will continue to be experienced. It is also inconceivable to me to think that the services and people who responded will themselves be facing major cuts over the next few years.
Like the weather, public policy seems to be out of kilter with what is needed and desired. We don't want to see more rain forecast for the inflicted areas; and we surely don't want more public service cuts forecast either.