With rain and wind lashing the British Isles and numerous flood warnings continuing to be raised both around rivers and along the coast, attention has turned to the substantial cuts made to the environment department. Government spending on flood defences has become a topic of fevered debate, especially in those communities affected by them. Despite David Cameron’s assurances that spending has increased, a look at figures from both Defra and the National Audit Office both show that spending has decreased, even without taking into account inflation. Defra’s figures show a fall of £46.1 million pound, while the NAO puts the shortfall at £103 million.
MPs are already calling on the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, to be clear about which parts of the environment agency are facing the largest cuts and what impact this will therefore have on its policies and spending.
Mr Paterson has already said that resources will be shifted to respond to changing circumstances and that he was confident that front line services would not be affected by the efficiency savings his department needed to make.
Over three hundred million are due to be cut from budgets over the next couple of years. The agency has already announced that between now and October, it will be cutting some 1500 jobs along the way and some reports suggest that over 500 of those are intended to be in the flood protection and prevention teams.
Defra have announced increases in capital investment and an intention to spend more on defences by 2020, but Labour’s shadow environment secretary has criticised the government for failing to make any prioritisation before now in spite of projections of more frequently occurring extreme weather conditions in the UK.
The storms that have hit the UK over the last couple of months have killed seven people and flooded 1700 homes just in England. The Met Office declared that last month was the windiest month since 1993, while the Environment Agency said that the storm surges are the highest since 1953.
The coming year is also expected to present challenges in respect to reforms to the Common Agriculture Policy, GM technology and policies around badger culling and bovine tuberculosis in addition to ongoing worries about flood defences. Concentrating on any one area of these would divert resources away from all the others, leaving the agency with a delicate balancing act.
Arguments over which government has spent more or less on flood defences will always rage back and forth, just like the tides, but the actual figures will be totally irrelevant if it ends up that what has been spent isn’t enough. Like any long term problem protecting against flood risk, especially when that risk is rising with changes in climate, is something that needs long term investment. Back in 2009, the environment agency’s own figures calculated that its flood defence and prevention spending would need to rise by over £20 million a year to keep up with the observed changes in the British climate. By way of comparison, the estimated cost of the troubled HS2 project is currently around the £50 billion mark.