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7 January 2016

Leader: After the storm

Severe floods are becoming the new norm in Britain.

By New Statesman

Over Christmas and the New Year, Britain was once again hit by extreme weather. The West Coast main railway line between Glasgow and Carlisle is now likely to stay closed until February and it is predicted that the total economic cost of flooding will hit £5bn. From Cornwall to Cumbria, those affected cannot take solace in the notion that the floods were a rare or unpredictable act of nature: many homes in Yorkshire have been damaged for the third time since 2007.

Severe floods are becoming the new norm in Britain. Although the government has pledged an extra £40m of emergency funds in response to the latest wave, it has failed to provide adequate protection for those in the most vulnerable areas. After the Conservatives entered office in 2010, spending on flood protection was reduced by 20 per cent, and several hundred proposed flood defences have been scrapped on cost grounds, including, in 2011, a £190m project to protect homes and businesses in Leeds. This is an expensive mistake: the Environment Agency calculates that every £1 spent on flood prevention saves £8 in clean-up costs.

Little wonder that there is widespread anger about the government’s failure. At the height of the Christmas crisis, the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a pointed front-page editorial that declared: “A Northern Powerhouse is nothing when it is under several feet of mucky water.” In such circumstances, the country badly needed the opposition to hold the government to account, and to point out that austerity is often a false economy. So, it is all the more regrettable that Jeremy Corbyn’s team allowed whispers of Labour’s planned reshuffle to crowd out that important message.

To prevent a repeat of the crisis, there are many practical steps that should be investigated, such as raising substations and transport links above ground level in vulnerable areas. Town planners should reconsider giving approval to developments on floodplains, and we must monitor the dredging of rivers and cutting and draining of bogs.

Unfortunately, however, such small measures will not be enough. Climate change makes frequent disruptive flooding far more of a threat in future, as Edward Platt reports on page 13. The mean temperature in the UK in December was 8°C, twice the UK average for the month. This warm weather brought more rain, and that brought floods.

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The Paris Agreement reached last month was a welcome step in acknowledging the extent of climate change, even if it remains uncertain that enough countries will sign up by the April 2017 deadline to make it legally binding.

The enshrining of the UN’s overseas aid target into law shows that the UK is still capable of providing global leadership. Now it needs to do the same with climate change. Both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn have a responsibility to prevent devastating floods becoming an ever more common feature of British life.

Mind the Tory gap on Europe

There was a useful reminder this past week that Jeremy Corbyn is not the only leader in British politics harried by a fractious and divided party. On 5 January, David Cameron was forced to promise that collective cabinet responsibility would be suspended during the EU referendum. He told the House of Commons that, following his renegotiation, the government would offer a clear recommendation on Britain’s EU membership but that ministers could oppose this view without quitting their job.

The decision was a sign of weakness, as the Prime Minister acted to halt a potential revolt from ministers such as Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers who wish to join the Out campaign. Two of Mr Cameron’s prospective successors, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, have also long flirted with Euroscepticism, and the concession will force them to declare their hand.

Mr Cameron will be desperately hoping for a short referendum campaign and a resounding win; otherwise, his future will be far from assured. The battle is sure to be bloody and Tory MPs who have revelled in Labour’s internal disputes may soon find they are far less filled with schadenfreude.

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue