Cameron's flooding review must test the nation's preparedness for climate change

To date, the coalition has unforgivably weakened Britain's climate adaptation plans.

David Cameron sparked a storm at last week's PMQs when he stated he "very much suspects" that there is a link between climate change and increasingly abnormal weather events. Despite the efforts of some sceptics to pick holes in that assertion, Met Office scientists have since vindicated the Prime Minister.

Much less reported - but much more significant - was Cameron's commitment to undertake a review of flooding and climate change:

Ed Miliband: "Given the scale of risk exposed by these floods and the expected impact of climate change, will the Prime Minister also commit to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Defra] providing a report by the end of this month, providing a full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies and of whether the investment plans in place are equal to the need for events of this kind?"

The Prime Minister: "I am very happy to make that commitment."

Owen Paterson must be cursing. It seems likely that the beleaguered Environment Secretary would have rather got away with a cursory, self-congratulatory survey of his department's handling of the winter floods, focusing on the number of times he has chaired COBRA emergency meetings and stomped about in welly boots. Given his past statements about climate change - and how he has carefully ignored questions probing his opinions on the matter in recent weeks - we can be sure he would rather not engage with the underlying drivers of future flooding. But that is precisely what Cameron's commitment binds him into examining, and he must be held to this.

Defra's flooding review must, as a matter of national urgency, take stock of the country's preparedness for worsening flooding in future. As Defra's own risk assessment states, "floods and coastal erosion are already serious risks in the UK, and they are projected to increase as a result of climate change." Indeed, the government projects that the number of homes at serious flood risk could increase from around 370,000 now to almost 1 million by the 2020s, thanks to climate change and population growth. Opinion polling carried out by the Environment Department shows that 80% of the public understand flooding will increase in future and are concerned about it.

Up till now, Messrs Cameron and Paterson have sought to deflect criticism away from the coalition's flooding policy by claiming that "this Government will be spending more on flood defences in the course of these four years than any preceding Government." But however you add up the figures or spin the data, the truth is the coalition government chose to cut flood defence spending. The coalition committed fewer funds each year to flood defences in its 2011-2015 Spending Review than the last government did in its 2007-11 Spending Review. Osborne's Spending Review resulted in a 10% cut to defences, which represents a much bigger cut taking into account inflation.

But even if the government's claims were true, doing more than the last lot would be no reason to rest on your laurels. As Churchill once famously remarked, "Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required." And climate change imposes a punishing logic on flood preparedness, requiring increasing amounts of investment to be committed just to keep the same number of households protected. A decade ago, Sir David King - then the government's Chief Scientific Advisor, now the coalition's climate envoy - warned that investment would need to ramp up for decades to keep pace with increasing flood risk. The Environment Agency's long-term investment plan calls for investments in flood defences of £20m more per year, on top of inflation, every year out to 2035. It would be extremely helpful if Paterson's flooding review explained how the coalition's real-terms cuts to flood defences square with this requirement.

In numerous other regards, the coalition has unforgivably weakened Britain's preparedness for climate change. A "full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies", as signed up to by the PM, will need to address the following at minimum:

·         The government's flood insurance scheme, Flood Re, fails to factor in climate change to its consideration of future flood risk.

·         Proposed 15% budget cuts to the Environment Agency mean over 550 staff working on flooding are earmarked to be sacked, and the EA's Chief Executive Paul Leinster has warned that the cuts will inevitably impact on flood preparedness.

·         The coalition removed the duty on Local Authorities to produce climate adaptation plans in 2010 - which, together with huge cuts to council budgets, has led to numerous Local Authorities ditching staff working on climate change preparedness and letting their plans gather dust.

·         The government's Climate Change Risk Assessment makes preparations for a world that experiences medium levels of emissions and 2 degrees of global warming. But the world remains on a high-emissions pathway. We must do everything we can to avert this, but even so, it would be prudent to plan for the worst as well as hoping for the best. What preparations has the government made for how Britain will cope in a 4-degree world?

There's then the small matter that Defra's own climate adaptation team has been slashed from 38 officials to just six last year. It's doubtful whether this overworked skeleton staff has the capacity to undertake a serious review of Britain's flood preparedness. Better, surely, would be for Defra to obtain an independent report from the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, which has a statutory duty to advise on this subject anyway. Officials working on climate change at the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office (including Sir David King) should also be consulted, not least because of their understanding of managing risk.

Cameron's flooding review is a test of the government's willingness to seriously prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. When Churchill warned of the threats facing the country in the 1930s, he called those years "the locust years", since they should have been spent preparing but instead were fruitlessly eaten up. Will the coalition's lack of preparations for climate change be similarly viewed?

David Cameron talks with a resident in a flooded home in the village of Yalding in Kent on December 27, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.