The people of the city of Hull feel that they have been abandoned. On 25 June the city was devastated by floods. Five weeks later tens of thousands of its most vulnerable citizens are still coping on their own with the devastation.
The government blamed the floods on the unseasonal weather. Yet for Hull, and other towns and cities across the country, the heavy rains exposed years of cuts and the unwillingness of the government to live up to its obligations.
In the days following the floods Hull council mobilised 700 staff to assess the scale of the damage. But, instead of being able to act quickly on the information, the council was forced to beg for government aid.
The estimated repair bill for the city is between £50 and £100 million. The devastation has hit the poorest people the hardest.
For residents of the Bransholme estate on the edge of town the floods have brought misery to an area already suffering from years of neglect.
The Bransholme estate is one of the biggest in Europe. It was constructed in 1967 to rehouse people from the crumbling city centre. It was built on the flood plains around the city.
But a network of drainage ditches, gullies and pumping stations kept flooding in check. Two months ago this crumbling, underfunded network finally collapsed.
Socialist Worker visited the estate to find piles of stinking furniture left to rot in gardens or piled outside front doors. Children’s toys, chairs, shoes and clothes have been left to the flies and mildew.
Unable to cope with the scale of their losses, many families have abandoned their homes and moved into temporary accommodation.
Phil Sanderson is a member of Hull trades council. He has been touring the area to record the level of the disaster.
He said the city has been forgotten despite being a Labour heartland. For Phil it is not the weather that is to blame, but decades of cuts and policies that made the needs of ordinary people a low priority.
“Hull is dangerously exposed to floods,” Phil said. “But it always has been. The city was built around a port and is below sea level. But we always had an integrated drainage system that kept the city safe.
“The rains on 25 June were heavy. But 20 years of cuts meant that but this system could no longer cope. There is only one crew to maintain the 200,000 drainage ditches.
“Last year there were two trucks to maintain the system, but they cut it to one.
“The network of gullies and ditches need constant maintenance. And despite many warnings, the council cut money vital to their upkeep.
“The danger signs had been there since the rains began.
“In the weeks leading up to the floods, the council became concerned that the system was close to collapse. The ground became like a sponge.
“Workmen poured rubble into the pedestrian underpasses after some kids became ill playing in the pools of infected water that were building up there.”
The rains exposed the levels to which the once thriving city has been drained of investment.
The main focus for people’s anger is Yorkshire Water. Since it was privatised in 1989 the company has made an estimated £12 billion in pre-tax profits.
Last year the company made £224.3 milion on the back of a 7 percent increase in water bills.
The company runs five vital pumping stations that drain off flood water – they all broke down as the water levels rose. One of the pumping stations is over 50 years old.
“The company waited till after the flooding to build a barrage of sandbags around Bransholme’s pumping station”, Phil said.
“They are more concerned with paying shareholders than investing in vital infrastructure.”
The deluge on 25 June meant the sodden earth could no longer absorb water. A one inch rise in the level of water was enough to destroy people’s lives.
As neighbours rushed to tackle the rising water a message on the council helpline announced that they had run out of sandbags.
The meagre defences proved useless as water seeped up through the foundations of houses.
For 80 year old Avril Farrah it was this inch of water that did the damage. The water seeped into the hall and living room through a large crack that runs along the concrete floor in her kitchen. Neighbours rushed to save her furniture, but the damage was done.
As an elderly council tenant she was classified as a priority. Council workmen poured disinfectant on her floors and removed the damaged carpets.
Despite the dehumidifier that whirls constantly in the living room she has spent the last five weeks living in the damp.
“My greatest sadness is for my neighbours,” she said. “They have young children, but since the floods they have been unable to cope. All the children’s toys and the family’s furniture is ruined. They upped and left and have still to return.”
A few years ago Avril suffered a stroke and she is now dependent on charities to help her out.
The damage caused by the floods has added to the degeneration of the estate. At the end of Avril’s row one house has been abandoned for years. Now her neighbours have gone she is the last one left in her street.
Piles of rotting furniture have joined the boarded up houses, burnt out flats and crumbling streets.
Phil said, “Fifteen years ago the estate was full. But after years of lack of investment families moved out and homes were boarded up. Abandoned by the council the estate has been slowing rotting.”
The rising level of misery is a grim reminder of the human cost of cut backs and belt tightening. Hull has become a symbol of the degeneration of many towns and cities across the country.
Once the city had a thriving fishing industry which has been in long-term decline. In another blow the Bird’s Eye processing plant was closed and asset stripped last year after a private equity company bought it out.
Unemployment is now rampant, and many families are dependent on handouts from charities. In response to the devastation one charity has been distributing £150 per family to replace damaged goods.
But the average cost of new cookers, washing machines and furniture runs into thousands of pounds.
Lack of funds had led the city council to cut back on insurance, leaving rate payers to pick up the bill. The situation is not likely to improve.
As a new academic year approaches 43 schools need structural repairs, a further 38 are damaged and 11 are badly damaged.
The city council has so far identified 6,677 homes damaged in the floods. Thousands of others are yet to be fully assessed.
There is one sector, however, where the city has been booming.
Over the last few years millions of pounds has been poured into luxury homes. These are being snapped up by investors and left empty. Meanwhile tens of thousands of ordinary people are forced to find shelter elsewhere.
The city is now trapped between a dilapidated housing stock and rampant housing development that is out of the reach of most people.
Phil said, “The floods that devastated large parts of Hull were essentially man-made. Now ordinary people are left to pick up the pieces.”
‘Every morning I am reminded of what I lost’
The damage caused by the flood has been made worse by the inaction of the insurance companies and the lack of council resources.
We found Joan Mulholland standing by a pile of furniture outside her home.
Joan moved into the estate one year ago to be near her daughter. She bought her house and invested in a new kitchen and living room. It is now rotting outside her front door, a daily reminder of her loss.
Joan insured her home, but she is still waiting for the assessor to visit.
“I have no dehumidifier or heater to dry out the house,” she said. “My wallpaper is peeling off the walls and the damp is seeping into the wood and walls. The plaster is beginning to rot.”
A neighbour gave her a garden chair. It’s the only piece of furniture she has. Her son is serving overseas in the army so she feels she has been left to cope on her own.
She said, “I feel helpless. But I am lucky. There are many young families in the estate who have no insurance. I am prepared to wait, but the longer it takes the more damage the damp is causing.”
Two doors down her daughter’s newly decorated home has been gutted. Unable to cope she took her children and left.
All that remains in the house is a dining room table and some chairs.
The carpet is rotting in the garden.
Joan said, “Every morning I step outside my front door I am reminded of what I have lost. I wish the council would remove the furniture, but they tell me I’m not a priority.”