The floods that devastated parts of the country last week have left at least three people dead and thousands with their homes ruined.
The six bridges in Cumbria that were swept away have divided towns in half. Hundreds have been left without electricity, heat, food or water. The clean-up operation could take years.
Gordon Brown has pledged £1 million to help the county, the worst-hit area in Britain—but this is too little, too late.
This disaster could have been prevented with proper funding. After all, bridges are supposed to be built to withstand floods.
But most of the bridges that fell were built in the Victorian era, when there wasn’t the technology to build deep foundations into the river bed.
The scale of last week’s floods meant that river beds shifted along, undercutting the foundations. This is known as “river bed scour”.
Bridges are particularly vulnerable to this if their foundations are not deepened and properly maintained.
Tory-run Cumbria County Council says it maintains bridges “as soon as possible, within budgetary restraints”.
But for decades the council has been cutting its highways maintenance budgets, which includes upkeep of bridges.
As the floods hit, the council was planning almost £1 million of cuts over the next three years.
Northside Bridge in Workington, which collapsed killing a man, had not been inspected since July 2008—and that was not even the most detailed kind of inspection.
Most bridges are built to fail “only” once every 200 years. So a 0.5 percent chance of collapse in any given year is considered OK.
The technology exists to build much safer bridges—but it is not often used, as it is expensive.
It’s not just bridges that suffer from this penny-pinching attitude. For example, many of the drainage systems that overflowed, spewing sewage into people’s homes, are completely outdated.
Money also affects rescue operations. Firefighters were at the forefront of saving lives after the floods—but Cumbria’s fire service could be merged into a neighbouring district, with a £250,000 budget cut.
The coastal areas of Cumbria are on a flood plain and have some of the highest average rainfall rates in England. The flooding there was entirely predictable.
If enough had been spent on flood defences, maintenance and reinforcing structures then much of the devastation would not have happened.
Floods might be a natural disaster. But the blame for the consequences lies with public service cuts—and the system we live under, which puts a price on human life.