Leading article: England let down by poor flood response

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The Independent Online

Once more freakish weather in parts of the country has caught ministers and local authorities by surprise. About 30,000 people in parts of the north of England are still homeless. Some areas remain heavily waterlogged. Yet it is more than a week ago that the intense rain started to fall.

Extreme flooding offers familiar lessons. In the autumn of 2000 there was similar disruption although on a less dramatic scale. The response then was equally slow and inept with councils even running out of sandbags. The environment minister at the time, Michael Meacher, warned that Britain had better get used to such conditions because they were the unavoidable consequences of climate change. Nearly seven years later Britain is still unprepared.

In theory councils are responsible for responding to the crises, but local government in Britain is weak. As a result its leaders call for more resources from central government when they are in the middle of an emergency. Earlier this week the leader of Hull council took to the airwaves on the BBC to plead for more help. Only after a few days did ministers leap to attention. Evidently there needs to be clearer lines of responsibility along with speedier mechanisms for releasing cash and other resources in emergencies.

Admittedly the recent flooding coincided with the formation of Gordon Brown's new government and his first days as Prime Minister. The Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, was one of those who were adjusting to a new department as the storms broke. Also the attempted terrorist attacks last week in London and Glasgow took up much prime ministerial attention. These are mitigating circumstances.

But the slow response to the situation in parts of the north was not a one-off brought about solely by the extraordinary political and security situation last week. The complacent tardiness is part of a pattern. So many institutions are responsible no one seems to take immediate overall control.

There are few comparisons with the fatally complacent reaction of President Bush to the hurricane that swept through New Orleans. But in a minor way the erratic response to the floods in the north of England suggest that in Britain, as well as in the US, the institutional responses to natural disasters and the level of resources available require an urgent review. This time lessons must be learnt.