Large parts of the UK have their wettest January on record, leading to widespread and severe flooding, and I blame the government’s austerity policy. Ridiculous? Quite the reverse. Under a sensible macroeconomic programme for public investment, the last few years would have seen a very large increase in spending on flood prevention. Instead we saw cuts, because flood prevention had to take its share of austerity. This was a government decision, for which they alone are responsible.
But it gets worse for the government. Extreme weather events like the one we are now suffering are a predictable consequence of climate change. Just have a look at this helpful DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and Environment Agency webpage. It says: “Global temperatures are rising, causing more extreme weather events, like flooding and heatwaves.” As the page makes clear, this applies to the UK. So there is a need to increase spending on flood protection, and realistically that has to be public spending.
Any government minister in charge of the environment would know this. They might not believe it, however, if they were a climate sceptic. Sure enough, the environment minister Owen Patterson is just such a sceptic. Spending by DEFRA on finding ways to cope with climate change had risen by almost 20% under Paterson's predecessor, Caroline Spelman, but fell 41% after Paterson replaced her in September 2012, according to the Guardian. Patterson has noticeably failed to back David Cameron’s “suspicion” that climate change was behind our current severe weather. But of course Patterson was appointed by Cameron.
Now there is “controversy” over whether spending on flood prevention has been cut by this government or not. Except there is no real doubt, as one look at the chart in my previous post shows. (Dear BBC. This chart comes from a House of Commons document. Why isn’t it on your website?) This is only controversial because the government has tried to claim otherwise, by for example including spending in the year it took office as its own, even though it was planned by the previous government. If you want to get into how the government has tried to bend the figures, see Guy Shrubsole or Jim Pickard (HT Jonathan Portes). Yet this “debate” nicely diverts attention from two key points: spending should have been rising because of the increased threat, and the recession gave the government the ideal opportunity to accelerate this process (cheap labour, cheap borrowing). It failed on both counts, and cut instead.
As I have noted before, most macroeconomists agree that public investment should rise in a recession, including some like Ken Rogoff who have been quite supportive of austerity more generally. However, the standard response when I make this point is that it is very difficult to find “shovel ready” projects to invest in quickly. This is one reason why I originally talked about flood prevention - it was a clear example of potential UK public investment that was in a very real sense shovel ready!
So this looks like a major scandal. Except, that is, in a country in which the political right directly or indirectly controls most of the media. If you search using the three words “UK flooding austerity” in Google or Yahoo the first item that comes up is my post, followed in Yahoo by a report from Al Jazerra! Of course, the right wing media need someone to blame, so knives are out for the chairman of the Environment Agency Chris Smith, who also happens to have previously been a Labour minister. This just a month after it was announced that the Environment Agency is being forced to cut 1,500 jobs, which it says will “have an impact on flood operations such as risk management, maintenance and modelling.” As yet, those responsible for these decisions have not been held to account.