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.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.