Oh but Mr Yousaf, what has become of that? More than 120 homes were evacuated when Brechin was flooded and hit with even more heavy rain a few weeks later. Three months on from the storm, they are still washing the streets to try to get rid of the sewage and the oil and the slime. There are 60 properties that may never be habitable again. And the people who’ve been affected have received nowhere near the level of help they need; in some cases, they’ve received nothing at all.
Let’s go into the details, firstly because it highlights what the people of Brechin still need, but secondly, because it underlines the huge holes in government policy; holes that will be regularly filled with filthy flood water if we don’t do things differently. We’re now at the point where (almost) all of us accept extreme weather caused by climate change is becoming more common and yet government policy is falling behind.
But first: more about what help the residents of Brechin have and haven’t received. The Scottish Government has given the residents £1,500 each and businesses £3,000, which may seem decent in some ways but as one local told me at the weekend: it’s not much when you’ve lost everything. The area of the town worst affected, River Street, is also a place where a lot of people don’t have a lot of money; and how far does £1,500 get you anyway?
We should also talk about the farmers in the area. Storm Babet was disastrous for them – we’re talking average losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds – but when the farmers asked if they could get the £3,000 payout, they were told no. To make matters worse, £61million of agricultural funding which the UK Treasury allocated to the Scottish Government has been withdrawn by Mr Yousaf and his ministers and spent on God-knows-what. The money that’s supposed to replace the old EU grants has also been cut back too. It’s grim.
And the bigger reality is that, even though the people of Brechin and the surrounding area are going to be struggling with this for years to come (some people have houses they can never sell), this isn’t just a problem for one town in Angus. I remember standing in pools of dirty water in Dumfries speaking to some of the people flooded out by the Nith yet again. But look at the cases I mentioned at the start of this piece – it’s national, it’s everywhere.
So why then is Scotland’s response to the problem so disconnected and small? Obviously, local people want to do their bit, and the residents of Brechin have been brilliant in helping each other out. To pay for the recovery, Angus Council has also had to take more than a quarter of a million from its reserves and counting. And there are some good ideas locally, such as encouraging people to plant trees to help control the water although that’s a project that won’t really start working for another 20 to 30 years.
The answer is for national government to focus its priorities, do more to better coordinate all the agencies that work in flood defences, and above all allocate more funds to helping out. Labour’s plan, if/when they get into power, is to establish a resilience taskforce that would meet every winter and work on protecting communities from the dangers of flooding. The taskforce would also aim to better coordinate the work of central government, councils, local communities, and the emergency services. It makes a lot of sense.
The Scottish Government could also act right now to improve what it does. For a start, it should acknowledge that £1,500 for someone who may have lost their home and all their belongings is pathetic and it really doesn’t matter that it’s worse in England where they’re only getting £500. We need to assess people’s actual need and proceed from there, and a large, central flood resilience fund would help.
It’s also obvious that with extreme weather becoming more common and water lapping at our feet and gushing into our houses, every government should include a minister tasked with flooding and its consequences, a minister for emergencies if you like. One in six houses are at risk of flooding and the numbers are predicted to double by 2050 so why isn’t there someone in government whose only job it is to better prepare? Perhaps then government could start to grapple with the tricky question of which parts of Scotland are going to become uninhabitable and how we help the people who live there right now.
In the meantime, local communities across the country are left to struggle on and the work continues in Brechin to recover as best they can. I spoke to one of the town’s local councillors, Gavin Nicol, over the weekend and he laid it out in all its grimness. The flooded, filthy streets. How long will it take to recover? The empty houses. Would you be willing to live in one of them? And the £1,500. Would that pay for everything you owned?
Obviously, the town has received some help and that’s a small step forward; the residents have also been consistently amazing. But the fact that the help Brechin has received is still not enough should be a warning to the rest of us, about what’s happening now and what’s still to come. Look at the headlines. Ayrshire. Aberdeenshire. The Highlands. The Lowlands. Again and again. Closer and closer. How much more before the Scottish Government raises its game?