The Blog

The Government Must Take the Direction Provided By the Paris Climate Talks

The situation in Lancaster, and the even worse flooding further north in Cumbria, means climate change is in general conversation not just because the flooding occurred during the global Paris talks.

I joined Green councillors in Lancaster yesterday, ten days after the disastrous floods in northern England, to assess the damage and the local response.

I saw many of the sights I expected: flooded local small businesses and community facilities in the city centre (affected not by river flooding but by water pouring off the hills with nowhere to go); the local radio station, The Bay, which kept broadcasting from a makeshift first floor studio as its ground floor flooded; and bridges that were closed after a container which was washed down the river was feared to have caused structural damage.

But what I heard was that this flooding was not the chief or most disruptive impact of Storm Desmond for many in Lancaster.

Instead, the most serious problem was the loss of electricity for well over 24 hours, following the flooding of a sub-station that had only recently seen its defences refurbished to deal with a "1 in a 100 year" flood. Those defences proved totally inadequate, and the city and its residents suddenly found themselves facing a huge range of problems.

Thanks to hard work and commitment, the community coped - often magnificently. One example I saw was at the Marsh Community Centre, which opened its doors with volunteer staff to cater to a housing estate that relies on electricity for cooking.

An emergency trip to Preston for supplies found camping equipment had already sold out, so a fire drum did a long run of baked potatoes, while mobile residents popped around the estate to check on older or frailer residents.

And The Fig Tree fair trade shop, which was flooded out, has found several new homes for Christmas trading, with volunteers helping to recover the stock and its owner Bruce Crowther not so much reflecting on his own misfortune as that of people around the globe who suffer such a fate regularly.

Many found themselves trapped, without fuel in their vehicles and with all petrol stations closed without power. And without cash - since ATMs were broken or without money. Few people had stocks of candles or other emergency supplies. Lucky were those still with battery-operated radios or hand-cranked ones. Mobile phone signal was unreliable to non-existent.

Hotels guests found they couldn't get into their rooms (electronic key cards don't work without electricity). Student residences and offices became unusable when electric doors wouldn't open.

Many wandered the streets trying to get information about what was happening from neighbours.

There was a general sense that there'd been no official help or support, no one in charge of even a short-term breakdown.

There was, still, yesterday, a slightly stunned sense of uncertainty, a new understanding of vulnerability.

One stroke of luck was that the tide was out during the peak of the flooding. Many were asking what would have happened to Heysham nuclear power plant- the only British nuclear power station located in an urban area - had the timing been different.

Another lucky group were the residents of the riverside Halton-on-Lune co-housing project, which I visited on an earlier trip to Lancaster. It was built for a "1 in 1,000 year flood" and it stayed dry, but only just.

The situation in Lancaster, and the even worse flooding further north in Cumbria, means climate change is in general conversation not just because the flooding occurred during the global Paris talks.

My visit yesterday had added poignancy because back in Westminster, MPs were voting, without the opportunity to have a full debate, on allowing fracking under national parks and other sensitive areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSIs).

And fracking is at the centre of Lancaster's thoughts, after the long campaign that culminated in Lancashire County Council voting against two sites near Blackpool, a decision which might now be over-ruled by the Westminster government.

Added to the government's preparedness to ignore the direction provided by the global climate talks, local fears here in the North that climate change means such events are likely to become more common, and the wide awareness of the dangers of the process achieved through the anti-fracking protests, and this is clearly one more issue on which far-away Westminster is deeply distant from local views, and the government utterly indifferent to local concerns.