Thanks for wading in, Mr Cameron - now this is what you need to do about flooding

The Prime Minister needs to reverse the foolish decisions his government has taken on flood defences.

As the Christmas floods continued, it was inevitable that at some point the Prime Minister would pull on his gumboots and go visit a flood-struck town. It was equally inevitable that - in a moment of life imitating art - he would be confronted, like an episode from The Thick Of It, by angry residents fed up at being ignored for so long by the authorities.

The press snickered at Cameron's red-faced apologies and hasty pledges of more support, but in reality there is little that even the PM can do to help with an emergency clean-up. No, the true measure of whether a politician is fit to deal with emergencies is whether they act to make the next one less likely.

Indeed, as Cameron said on Friday, "these events are happening more often". One might almost infer - perish the thought! - that the climate is changing. So, then: is the PM going to stick to his pledge to make flooding "a bigger priority for the government"? If he is, that is very welcome news. But to do so, he will first need to reverse a string of very foolish decisions his administration has taken that make Britain less prepared for increased flooding in future. Let's examine those decisions:

1. The coalition is responsible for a real-terms cut in spending on flood defences, when the Environment Agency says we need to be investing £20m more each year, on top of inflation, to keep pace with increased flooding due to climate change. On Friday, Cameron tried to claim that his government "is spending more on flood defences over the next four years than over the last four years." This is simply not true: however you spin the figures, they don't keep pace with inflation, and certainly don't keep pace with increasing flood risk. Cutting flood defence spending is a total false economy: every £1 spent on defences is worth £8 in avoided costs.

2. In 2014, the government is cutting the Environment Agency's budget by 15%, with 550 staff working on flooding earmarked to be sacked. So when the Prime Minister tweeted, "An enormous thank you to the @EnvAgency... who are doing an amazing job with the floods and extreme weather", it rang hollow. Farming groups have warned the cuts will increase flood risks; they have to be halted.

3. The government's new flood insurance plan fails to factor in how climate change will increase the risk of future flooding - potentially leaving half a million households outside the scheme and facing higher insurance costs.

4. Councils no longer have to prepare for the impacts of climate change - Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, scrapped this obligation in 2010. So much for Cameron's recent tweet, stating that he has "asked the Dept for Communities & Local Govt to ensure councils have robust plans in case of bad weather and flooding over New Year." Talk about closing the stable door once the horse has bolted...

5. The minister that David Cameron appointed to protect the country from the impacts of climate change, Owen Paterson, doubts that climate change is happening, hasn't bothered to get briefed on it by his scientists, and says it's not all bad anyway.  Paterson probably has fun cultivating his image as a green-baiting contrarian, but given the impact of increasing flooding on rural communities and farmers, the laughter's wearing pretty thin. Time for a new Secretary of State better suited to the task.

6. Defra's team working on climate change adaptation has been slashed this year from 38 officials to just six. If resilience to flooding isn't a priority at the centre of government, why should it be something local authorities take seriously?

And that's just for starters. If Cameron is to be able to look flood-stricken householders in the eye in future and say he's doing all he can to help them, he needs to reverse these foolish decisions, and fast. And he needs to remember the old adage, that prevention is better than cure. The best insurance we have against increased flooding in future is to tackle the pollution causing climate change in the first place.

David Cameron talks with residents and environment agency workers in the village of Yalding during a visit on December 27, 2013 in Yalding. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Getty Images.
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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.