Through a combination of prolonged sessions on my computer, watching too much television and a touch of insomnia, in the last 24 hours I have been subject to a deluge of information and discussion about the heavy weather afflicting the UK and its ongoing effects. Most recently, by accident, having retired to bed and unable to sleep, I found myself listening on the radio to the BBC television programme Question Time (hosted by David Dimbleby from Scunthorpe) and the follow-up discussion on Radio Five Live.
The main subjects on these were the widespread flooding and the implications of the Scottish referendum vote coming up later this year.
The ‘connection’ between the two – inadvertent or not – was the perception in regions away from the South-East that the UK government, and indeed politicians of all parties, only ever react to issues and disasters when either they begin to encroach upon London and the Home Counties or, perhaps a more cynical view, when these problems begin to affect constituencies which the main parties regard as their heartlands and/or core vote.
One thing that occurred to me, as I lay in bed still trying desperately but unsuccessfully to nod off, was the possibility that the UK – if not the world – is becoming ungovernable, in the sense that the many serious problems that need addressing, when taken together, are de facto irreconcilable and unsolvable.
Let me explain.
It was recently announced that the UK population – the fastest-growing in Europe – has reached 63.7 million. The Office for National Statistics is currently projecting that it will rise to 73.2 million by 2035.
I heard somewhere that, in order to cope with the housing requirements of our rising population, the UK would need to build a city the size of Birmingham. Or maybe I got that wrong – maybe it was a city the size of Birmingham every three years, or possibly three cities the size of Birmingham every year. Anyway, it was a hell of a lot of homes.
In response, a while back, the Coalition Government announced that it was going to drive a coach and horses through the outdated mountain of planning regulations and thereby ‘get things started’ in a campaign to deal with the developing housing crisis by encouraging building on brownfield and similar sites.
Cue outrage from NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and rural protesters.
Cue, apparently, more and more building on flood plain areas, where there was already a plethora of developments going ahead.
Then – rather, now – we get the current weather and flooding crisis, followed by people on the ground, planners, the Environment Agency and politicians all playing ‘pass the parcel’ on who is to blame and what might have been done to prevent it … and/or at least protect the blighted areas from the worst effects.
Last night, listening to Question Time, I was struck by the Scunthorpe audience’s disgust that Westminster has only reacted, and was now planning to spend ‘whatever it takes’ to restore the flooded West Country and Thames Valley to normality. This when, somewhere local to Scunthorpe whose name I didn’t catch, there had been a similar flooding disaster in December, about which the Government had effectively done nothing … until now. Why?
You can probably see where I’m going.
There’s a housing crisis caused by the UK’s large (and growing) population, for which the solution is plainly ‘build more houses’. But where? On flood plains? Best not, but perhaps needs must. On greenfield sites? That’s an uphill task with the wide mix of protesters lined up against the prospect.
Yet they’ve got to go somewhere.
But, if you’re building on flood plains – that’s a counter-intuitive concept for a start, in my view – then surely you’ve also got to factor in comprehensive (and very expensive) flood protection measures at the same time.
Pardon my impertinence, but if I was Prime Minister, looking at the issues in the round in an effort to ‘square the circle’ and devise a way forward, sadly – as I sit here in the dead of night – I’m not sure I could.
Maybe there isn’t one.
Maybe our political lords and masters have accepted – but not told us – that it is just not possible to hatch and execute policies that will ‘sort’ all the conflicting issues that present themselves in the 21st Century. Maybe they’re just riding the tsunami of world and national events, surfing across an ocean of ever-increasing problems, having no greater idea of how to resolve them than I do. And, as indicated, I have none.
And on that note, I’m going back to bed.