Floods expose government’s short-sighted policy

‘Storm Desmond’, which saw flooding across the country this weekend, has exposed serious flaws in the Government’s planning for flooding and raised important questions about the UK’s approach to climate change.

Kendal Mayor Paul Titley’s press conference aptly summarised the mood. “The flood defences were designed for a one in 100‑year event, and since it’s six years since we had the last one, we were sort of surprised that we got one so soon”, Titley said. Whilst amusing, his sardonic comments also highlighted a serious point – namely, why do these once rare events seem to be happening with increasing frequency?

It’s less than two years since the last major floods in Britain, when thousands of acres of the Somerset Levels were consumed by water. Back then, David Cameron said “there are lessons to be learned and I will make sure they are learned”. Yesterday, the Prime Minister marked seven months since the election by delivering a speech titled ‘this is a government that delivers’. It was therefore with some irony that at the same time his Environment Secretary was at the dispatch box for an urgent statement, forced to defend Conservatives’ record on flood management. As communities across North West England come to terms with the damage, Cameron will find few who share his admiration for the government’s track record. Indeed, two key questions remain.

The most pressing centres on flood defences. Has the £115 million reduction in spending on flood defences and risk management over the last year been a cut too far? The move has drawn particular criticism from Shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy, but even unusual suspects such as The Daily Telegraph have challenged the Governmentusing an editorial on the floods to call the cut in spending “a false economy”. The reality is that spending on flood defences is clearly justifiable. A National Audit Office report released last year found that every £1 spent prevented nearly £10 in damage.

Statistics such as these highlight the myopic nature of government policy. This is set to continue as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) faces funding cuts of 15% following the recent Spending Review, in addition to significant savings during the last Parliament. Any additional funding the Government promises towards flooding prevention and mitigation will therefore mean even less spending elsewhere.

Beyond the issue of spending cuts, even more fundamental questions have been asked about the extent to which the flooding is related to climate change. With each new bout of flooding, consensus appears to be spreading that climate change is playing a part. A Met Office study, published last month, found that global warming made storms seven times more likely to result in extreme wet weather such as we have seen with Storm Desmond. Dame Julia Slingo, the Met Office’s Chief Scientist, this week said that “all the evidence points to climate change” playing a part in the floods.

Whilst Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary during the flooding in early 2014, was sceptical of the science on climate change, Truss yesterday said that “the extreme weather patterns that we are seeing … [are] consistent with climate change trends”. It is welcome that Truss accepts the science but there is an element of blame-avoidance in her comments. “Extreme weather patterns” may make it sound like the flood damage was beyond the Government’s control – but experts have consistently warned the Government that it is not doing enough to defend the country against the increasing risk of floods and this weekend’s events have proved that to be the case.

It is important to be cautious around definitively linking any one particular weather event to climate change but increasing extreme-weather events are consistent with the predictions made by climate scientists. In this respect, the fact that Storm Desmond arrived while the COP21 climate talks are ongoing in Paris is a timely reminder of the risks of business-as-usual. If climate change is playing a role in extreme weather events in the UK, as Truss accepts, it begs the question as to why the Government is increasing the risk of climate change by cutting subsidies for renewable energy and removing funding for research into Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). It also raises uncomfortable questions about this morning’s announcement that the Government will relax laws around building on green belt land. Won’t this risk houses being placed in more inappropriate areas that will be at risk of flooding?

In the short-term the Government must ensure that everything possible is done to help the communities affected. But the Government must also take the long-term lessons from Storm Desmond: cutting funds to protect against flooding is short-sighted; opening up building to green belt areas may have unintended consequences; and, most importantly, switching to climate-friendly forms of energy is more urgent than ever.