Magazine article Public Finance

After the Deluge

Magazine article Public Finance

After the Deluge

Article excerpt

Inside the Lanes Court sheltered housing scheme, fans and dehumidifiers are roaring away, trying to chase the dampness out of the air. It's been weeks since the floodwaters that engulfed the Gloucestershire town of Tewkesbury receded, but their after-effects are all too present. The walls bear tide-marks showing the two-foot level reached by the nearby River Swillgate, and a riveresque smell lingers in the corridors. Almost everything has been ripped out - the bare concrete floors no longer have carpets, and kitchens and bathrooms have been stripped back to their plaster.

Half the inhabitants of the 26 flats - all elderly people, some in their nineties, most with some sort of disability - are staying with relatives or other housing providers while the clean-up is completed. Jane Williams, who manages the scheme on behalf of Severn Vale Housing Society, the registered social landlord that is the main housing provider for Tewkesbury Borough Council, says that this vulnerable group is having difficulty in coming to terms with the sudden loss of their homes.

'The main challenge is to get them all back in, in the quickest time possible,' she says. 'They would love to come back in now. When I go and visit, they're always asking, "How's it going?",' I haven't the heart to tell them that it's going to be ripped apart'

Lanes Court is just one example of the thousands of people and services affected by this summers unprecedented flooding. While swathes of southern England and Wales went under water, Gloucestershire was the worst-hit county, with tens of thousands of people losing water and power supplies. For weeks, blue water bowsers stood on street corners, with queues of people lining up to get their emergency supplies. Rumours about the extent of the crisis - such as the possible evacuation of half a million people, since denied by the army - abounded, while the floods claimed three lives. Tewkesbury, at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, was one of the worst-hit areas, and aerial pictures of the town surrounded by green-brown flood waters became the iconic images of Britain's summer of floods.

But although the attention of the mainstream media has now moved off the flood story, local public service providers are knee-deep in the recovery operation. Clearing out flood-damaged houses and getting victims back on their feet is the top priority. One of the first things Tewkesbury council did was to lay on a free rubbish collection of all the flood-damaged furniture and white goods. Now, along with the county's six other councils, the authority has just completed a house-to-house survey of the flood-damaged homes. 'In Tewkesbury, we managed to do this in four days, and get around 1,500 people," says housing services and improvements manager David Steels.

The information will be used to assess claims for help with refurnishing homes. As many people did not have insurance, it's a question of quietly directing the limited funds to the most needy. 'We're not advertising, but identifying,' says Steels. 'We're trying to help the most vulnerable people at least to be comfortable.'

Much of the money will come from the Gloucestershire Flood Relief Fund, a pot of £600,000 and rising, run by a charity set up to meet flood-recovery needs. Its movers and shakers are largely council officials, who have responded to the lack of public funding for flood damage in an imaginative way. 'There was no body to turn to - that's why we all got together and plugged the gap,' says Tewkesbury s head of central resources, George Hill.

Along with most of the other service providers involved, the council's housing advice manager is pleased that the emergency response has generally been acknowledged as having gone well. During the worst weekend of the floods, VaI Smith and her team stayed up all night, dealing with the 233 residents driven out of their homes. Weeks on, with the 74 people still needing accommodation mostly staying with relatives, it looks as if the crisis has passed. …

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