Houses not covered by the coalition's Flood Re scheme could become uninsurable. Photo: Getty
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Labour is right: it’s the government’s duty to protect people from climate change

New Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss ahd her Lib Dem coalition partners need to be clear on how they will better protect Britain from climate change.

As torrential rains brought by Hurricane Bertha made yesterday the wettest day of the year yet, Labour made some welcome new commitments on climate change and flood defence policy.

Labour's shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle, declared that “no sensible government can govern in these challenging times without putting tackling climate change at the core of what they do. Ed Miliband, Caroline Flint and I all understand that.”

Her speech outlined a new willingness to champion the role of government in protecting the public from damaging environmental change. Contrasting the coalition's record on climate change with Labour's approach, she stated: “The government believe in cutting the size of the state and letting people fend for themselves... [Labour] believes strongly in the duty of government to protect people, whether it be from floods caused by a changing climate or the threat of air pollution and to protect our environment.”

This is an important principle to establish. The coalition’s new flood insurance system, Flood Re, is designed to remove support for flood risk homes over time, and seeks to individualise risk by compelling those households most at risk to install protection for their own properties. Yet flood defences are a classic instance of “public good” spending – by pooling funds, we protect many households more efficiently and fairly than expecting everyone to effectively dig their own moats. After all, climate change is, in the words of Lord Stern, “the greatest market failure the world has seen”, with a clear case for government intervention.

Also welcome is Labour's fresh commitment to “produce a new plan for climate change adaptation, to replace Owen Paterson’s discredited National Adaptation Programme (NAP) which is not fit for purpose.” The existing National Adaptation Programme dodges the question of how climate change will affect Britain if we continue to burn fossils fuels at current rates, settling instead to cross its fingers and hope that we stay under 2 degrees of global warming. We all hope for that – but it's the job of government to prepare the country for the worst, not simply hope for the best. With the next NAP due for 2018 at the earliest, a more urgent assessment of the climate change risks facing the UK is also needed.

A third development is how Labour is now explicitly linking UK climate change impacts with government policy on emissions cuts and international climate diplomacy. This is spot-on – after all, the best form of insurance we've got against worse flooding in future is to make progress on cutting carbon domestically and globally. Maria Eagle's speech pledged to “make achieving a global deal in Paris to limit emissions a top priority”. The UN climate talks in Paris in December 2015 must deliver an equitable, binding, global deal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and holding global temperature rise well below 2 degrees.

Lastly, Maria Eagle set out Labour's position on flood defence spending, stating that if Labour won the election it would “re-prioritise flooding as a core responsibility of Defra... As part of the Armitt Review, we will establish an Independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, which will include flood protection.” Again, this is encouraging – though it falls short of explicitly committing to invest in line with rising flood risk due to climate change. As the Committee on Climate Change has stated – and as Maria Eagle's speech pointed out – government underinvestment in flood defences plus climate change equals more homes put at flood risk: 82,500 homes over the next five years, to be precise.

Yesterday's announcements by Labour raise the bar for the new Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss and the Liberal Democrats to be clear on how they will better protect Britain from climate change. The central question for all the parties remains: when push comes to shove, will they commit to stopping over 80,000 homes from slipping into flood risk during the next Parliament - or stand by as rising tides wash over our crumbling defences?

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue