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2 December 2014

The Treasury’s flood defence plan leaves Britain dangerously exposed to climate change

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

By Guy Shrubsole

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.

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 Friends of the Earth were passed the detailed, unpublished spending plans for flood defences last week, and we’ve gone through them with a fine-toothed comb.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