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 Friends of the Earth were passed the detailed, unpublished spending plans for flood defences last week, and we've gone through them with a fine-toothed comb.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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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