As the Christmas floods continued, it was inevitable that at some point the Prime Minister would pull on his gumboots and go visit a flood-struck town. It was equally inevitable that – in a moment of life imitating art – he would be confronted, like an episode from The Thick Of It, by angry residents fed up at being ignored for so long by the authorities.
The press snickered at Cameron’s red-faced apologies and hasty pledges of more support, but in reality there is little that even the PM can do to help with an emergency clean-up. No, the true measure of whether a politician is fit to deal with emergencies is whether they act to make the next one less likely.
Indeed, as Cameron said on Friday, “these events are happening more often”. One might almost infer – perish the thought! – that the climate is changing. So, then: is the PM going to stick to his pledge to make flooding “a bigger priority for the government”? If he is, that is very welcome news. But to do so, he will first need to reverse a string of very foolish decisions his administration has taken that make Britain less prepared for increased flooding in future. Let’s examine those decisions:
1. The coalition is responsible for a real-terms cut in spending on flood defences, when the Environment Agency says we need to be investing £20m more each year, on top of inflation, to keep pace with increased flooding due to climate change. On Friday, Cameron tried to claim that his government “is spending more on flood defences over the next four years than over the last four years.” This is simply not true: however you spin the figures, they don’t keep pace with inflation, and certainly don’t keep pace with increasing flood risk. Cutting flood defence spending is a total false economy: every £1 spent on defences is worth £8 in avoided costs.
2. In 2014, the government is cutting the Environment Agency’s budget by 15%, with 550 staff working on flooding earmarked to be sacked. So when the Prime Minister tweeted, “An enormous thank you to the @EnvAgency… who are doing an amazing job with the floods and extreme weather”, it rang hollow. Farming groups have warned the cuts will increase flood risks; they have to be halted.
3. The government’s new flood insurance plan fails to factor in how climate change will increase the risk of future flooding – potentially leaving half a million households outside the scheme and facing higher insurance costs.
4. Councils no longer have to prepare for the impacts of climate change – Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, scrapped this obligation in 2010. So much for Cameron’s recent tweet, stating that he has “asked the Dept for Communities & Local Govt to ensure councils have robust plans in case of bad weather and flooding over New Year.” Talk about closing the stable door once the horse has bolted…
5. The minister that David Cameron appointed to protect the country from the impacts of climate change, Owen Paterson, doubts that climate change is happening, hasn’t bothered to get briefed on it by his scientists, and says it’s not all bad anyway. Paterson probably has fun cultivating his image as a green-baiting contrarian, but given the impact of increasing flooding on rural communities and farmers, the laughter’s wearing pretty thin. Time for a new Secretary of State better suited to the task.
6. Defra’s team working on climate change adaptation has been slashed this year from 38 officials to just six. If resilience to flooding isn’t a priority at the centre of government, why should it be something local authorities take seriously?
And that’s just for starters. If Cameron is to be able to look flood-stricken householders in the eye in future and say he’s doing all he can to help them, he needs to reverse these foolish decisions, and fast. And he needs to remember the old adage, that prevention is better than cure. The best insurance we have against increased flooding in future is to tackle the pollution causing climate change in the first place.