The government needs to be held to account over flooding

The Conservative policy of "cut now, pay later" must be exposed and reversed.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Climate change is a shared crisis - one that transcends politics and borders and must be fought collectively, justly and transparently. 

The same should be said of the UK’s flood crisis – the cost of which, being felt today in communities across the UK, is hard to overstate.

Climate change brings increasingly frequent and severe weather patterns and this means more floods. But the Government has consistently underestimated the effects of climate change - and so has significantly undermined our ability to protect ourselves against its impacts.

At best, we’ve seen sticking plaster solutions from the Conservatives on floods - a response which is at once economically illiterate (cut now, pay dearly later) and morally bankrupt.

The Government’s spin machine is good at glossing over such inconvenient truths. But its smoke and mirror policymaking is putting homes, lives and livelihoods at risk and must be laid bare. That’s exactly what Labour did in yesterday’s Opposition debate.

Here are some things we know…

Climate change means the flood crisis will only deepen. A 2° rise would see 1.2 million homes at a risk of flooding greater than one in every 75 years; and these infrequent events are becoming more common. In Keswick, Mayor Paul Titley was “sort of surprised we got [a one in 100 year flood] so soon” - only six years after the previous one.

Investment in flood defences plummeted under the Tories. In 2007, the Labour Government announced a target of £800m per year in flood defence spending by 2011. Spending actually increased from £500m in 2007/8 to £633 in 2009/10 and we had budgeted £766m in 2010/11.

Upon taking office in 2010, the Coalition government immediately cut the figure by £96m.  Ever since then they have been playing catch up.  The impacts of climate change – along with the Government’s willingness to build new homes on flood plains without protective measures – mean that simply maintaining defences at their current levels is not good enough. And the Government isn’t even doing that.

In fact, much of the emergency package of £270m that the government made available over the next three years following the 2013 floods was spent on restoring damaged defences to the level they had been before the floods – in other words: to a level that had just been proven inadequate. Had that money been invested in improving those defences prior to the winter of 2013, it would have protected many homes and families from the deluge that was to come and provided increased protection into the future.

In 2014, the Environment Agency recommended an ‘optimum’ overall investment on flood protections of £750m-£800m per year – the target that Labour set for 2011, seven years before.

If this were to be achieved, given that spending on new projects averages £383m a year – as shadow secretary Kerry McCarthy noted in yesterday’s debate, the government would need to be spending around £417m a year on maintenance. Environment Secretary Liz Truss, however, committed to a yearly maintenance spend of just £171 million from 2015-2021.

Even if we take the Government at their word on that, it still leaves a huge shortfall over 2015-21 – a gap of £1.5 billion, in fact.

Meanwhile, financial auditor KPMG has assessed the costs of December's floods. It estimates the repair and replacement alone of the overwhelmed defences to be £2bn.

Meanwhile, the government has been keen to talk up the £2.3bn it plans to spend over the coming six years. But this will cover the building of new defences only – not maintaining existing ones.

However, those new projects are dependent upon £600m in ‘partnership funding’ – of which £350m is yet to appear. Vital flood defence projects are not ‘cancelled’, just put into ‘development’ – perhaps indefinitely – for want of matched funding. Indeed, of 1,086 projects in the Environment Agency Development Programme, almost half are awaiting approval - subject to securing other funding contributions. That includes over half of all projects scheduled to start construction this March, in areas including Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria.

It’s also worth noting that just £61m has been raised from the private sector - with local authorities supplying the majority of what has been raised to date. 

Yet it is government which provides 80 per cent of local authority funding. So, in practice, all but a fraction of the money for new defences is coming from central government - but richer local authorities, which can afford to provide “external contributions” are able to get their work prioritised over flood defence schemes that would protect those in poorer local authority areas.

Liz Truss likes to claim that the current floods were ‘unprecedented’. They were. But they were not unpredicted. She has denied the Government has cut funds for defences. But that’s exactly what’s happened. It’s also been impossible for her own department – DEFRA – to address the gap in flood defence funding at a time when it was cut by around 25 per cent between 2010 and 2015 and is now told that it will have to deliver a further 15% of cuts.  

The Government’s November 2015 Spending Review statement was a masterclass in doublespeak: “Flood defence maintenance funding will be protected,” it said, “and Defra will work with the Environment Agency to generate 10 per cent efficiencies by 2019-20 with all savings reinvested to better protect another 4,000 homes.”

So the Environment Agency – the body responsible for building and maintaining flood defences – will receive a 10 per cent efficiency cut in order to protect flood defence maintenance funding.

Climate change links to everything – including the security of our homes. No one should be deceived about the risks they face, and the prevention that is possible.

Labour is standing shoulder to shoulder with our affected communities. In parliament we are holding this government to account. We will insist on transparency and accountability. Only by doing so will we properly protect those at risk from flooding today, and into the future.  

Barry Gardiner is Labour MP for Brent North and shadow Secretary of State for International Trade.