Why Storms Ciara and Dennis should force a civil defence rethink in Wales

(Title Image: thinkdefence.co.uk)

While the Atlantic may yet have more “fun” in store for us in the coming weeks, following the recent flooding the clean-up and informal inquests begin.

There’s not much political capital you can make from natural disasters other than questioning lack of preparedness or lack of investment in measures to protect people and property.

All in all, the response of the emergency services, Welsh Government (including Natural Resources Wales) and local authorities has been worthy of praise.  Due to the devolved centre of political gravity in Wales, it seemed easier for the Welsh Government, emergency services and local councils to coordinate their rescue and clean-up efforts. I doubt there’s much more they could’ve done.

The Welsh Government is responsible for flood defences and the quoted figure of £350million investment over the current Senedd term (£70million-a-year) is, on paper, a significant commitment for a nation of Wales’ size. Whether it’s enough by itself is another issue.

Flood defences often work but they come at a price. The River Ogmore in Bridgend town centre has been reduced to a glorified culvert by concrete walls, but apart from basements and unprotected areas further up and downstream there hasn’t been a major flood since the 1960s.

Even with the best-laid plans in place, it may not always be enough and it’s quite clear that countless communities across the UK don’t have adequate defences from flooding and other natural disasters.

Also, when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of flooding or another civil emergency, the lines of accountability and responsibility become blurred. There’s no question that the Welsh Government are supposed to take the lead on an  emergency within Wales, but when things get too big for Welsh and local government to handle, the UK Government are supposed to step in.

One particular area of confusion is military aid to civil authorities; can the First Minister ask for the military aid, or can it only be done through the UK Government? The rules are also quite clear that any civil authority requesting military assistance has to pay for it (pdf p41-43) despite the UK spending tens of billions of pounds on defence annually.

Wales proportionally contributes around £2billion to UK defence spending every year, yet the last fortnight demonstrates the inadequate UK defence set-up when it comes to protecting the population during an emergency at home. The First Minister said earlier today that the military option was considered but declined because the emergency services thought the incident was best handled by those trained to deal with flooding – though that begs the question: if the military aren’t trained to deal with dangerous situations like this, what use are they? What are we paying for? Defence spending often seems like the insurance policy that never pays out to Wales.

While the UK military was sent to help in Yorkshire, what happened in the Conwy valley, Monmouthshire, Rhondda Cynon Taf and elsewhere warranted the military being called in too – but their absence is notable. Even if they couldn’t do much more than shift sandbags or aid in clean-up and rescue operations, I’m sure the extra hands would’ve almost certainly been appreciated by the fire service and other workers on the ground if the First Minister decided to make the request.

There’s also an issue with how alerts for flooding and extreme weather are communicated; it has to be better than “look out the window”.

The Met Office’s “Red” warning for rain in the Valleys – meaning an imminent threat to life – was issued at the last minute without any prior notice when the damage was likely already done due to sodden ground. Natural Resources Wales’ website crashed several times too.

The technology exists to issue emergency alerts to specific areas – whether that’s over mobile phones, over radio and TV. Winter storms of this kind are nothing new, but if they’re going to become more frequent and intense then they have to be taken more seriously by government and the public.

The recently-announced £1.2billion investment in a new Met Office supercomputer is perhaps more important to protecting the lives and property in the UK than a single nuclear missile.

We need to stop thinking of defence in terms of guns, aircraft carriers and hard power willy-waving and start focusing more on defence at home – Welsh and UK governments alike (see more: State of Wales, Defending Wales VIII: Civil Defence).

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