Government plans aren't nearly enough to keep pace with rising flood risk. Photo: Getty
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The Treasury's flood defence plan leaves Britain dangerously exposed to climate change

New government plans for funding flood defences won't protect us.

So, almost a year on from Britain's wettest winter ever, whatever happened to David Cameron's pledge that "money is no object" in protecting people from flooding?

The government has been spinning furiously ahead of the Autumn Statement, desperate to get some good news coverage by announcing a set of shiny new infrastructure projects. This morning it was the turn of flood defences: £2.3bn of public investment over the next 6 years, "more than ever before".

The trouble is, "more than ever before" isn't nearly enough to keep pace with rising flood risk brought about by climate change. It's all very well to play political games by claiming that you're spending more than the last lot, but that's no comfort at all to the hundreds of thousands more homes that will be put at serious flood risk over the coming decade.

Let's crunch the numbers. The government says it will invest £2.3bn between 2015 and 2021 – with annual investment rising slowly to keep pace with inflation. Trouble is, climate change is kicking in much faster than inflation. Defra's own figures state clearly that over half a million more households could be put at significant flood risk by the 2020s – or to put it another way, by the end of the next parliament. So just to tread water in the face of rising seas and worsening downpours, investment needs to ramp up hugely.

Time and time again, experts have lined up to warn politicians that we need to increase flood defence investment by some £20m each year, on top of inflation  from the Foresight Review in 2004, to the Pitt Review in 2008, to the Environment Agency themselves in 2009. The government has ignored all of them, with the Chancellor slashing the floods budget by £100m shortly after taking office. As a result, a huge, half-billion-pound hole has opened up in our flood defences. The Committee on Climate Change have shown how steeply investment needs to rise if we're not to let hundreds of thousands more households slip into danger  and today's announcements come nowhere close.

The small print, too, reveals a strategy that's as leaky as a sieve. Friends of the Earth were passed the detailed, unpublished spending plans for flood defences last week, and we've gone through them with a fine-toothed comb. Repeatedly, councils and the Environment Agency have begged the government to release more money for vital schemes. "The need for funding for flood risk management has never been greater", warns one document; yet "a significant part of the capital programme bid [for defences] will remain unfunded."

Our analysis of the figures shows the government is putting a huge number of viable flood defence schemes on the backburner - at least 1.6billion pounds' worth that won't get funded over the next parliament. So when you see a frontbench politician unveiling a shiny new scheme, spare a thought for the thousands of households who aren't getting protected. Examples of unfunded schemes include refurbishments to sea walls at Newton Abbott in Devon (near to the Dawlish Warren rail link that collapsed following last winter's storms), tidal defences on the Isle of Wight that would safeguard 359 homes, and sea defences in Formby, Merseyside, that would have protected 297 households.

Worse, the Treasury is being so miserly that it's forcing councils and local businesses to cough up at least half a billion pounds towards schemes themselves. If they can't come up with the cash and close that black hole, many of the projects the government is so proudly announcing today will struggle to get built. It's a divisive approach that has great potential to increase inequality  rich parts of the country will get their defences built, whilst poorer, vulnerable areas could suffer.

Failing to tackle climate change comes with a heavy cost, and it's not right that the government makes flood-risk households pay the price for its failure to do so. A Chancellor truly committed to the welfare and security of British households would have found the money to protect us from the threat of rising seas and worsening floods.

All parties must, as a matter of national urgency, rethink how we protect the country from climate change  and do far more to tackle the pollution that's making it worse.​

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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