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.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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