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 Friends of the Earth were passed the detailed, unpublished spending plans for flood defences last week, and we've gone through them with a fine-toothed comb.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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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