Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

How Osborne and Cameron turned a crisis into a disaster

Would it be a wild, politically motivated jibe to call these the Osborne/Cameron floods? Of course it is nonsense to suggest that there would have been no floods over the last five years under a different government, but it is equally nonsense to deny that Osborne/Cameron policies have significantly increased the damage and human misery caused by these floods. Consider the following:

  1. We have known since at least the Pitt review of 2007 that climate change was going to greatly increase the incidence of record breaking bursts of rainfall in the UK. Government ministers can carry on claiming they are unprecedented, but they are not unexpected.

  2. The Labour government responded by greatly increasing their spending on flood defences, in the spending review which ended in 2010/11. In contrast Osborne demanded and obtained sharp cuts in 2011/12 and beyond. Only the arrival of floods dragged those numbers up in later years. Ministers can play around with dates as much as they like to try and tell a different story, but the evidence for those cuts is there in the data (see this post). Every news report that allows ministers to claim they did not cut spending on flood defences is complicit in deception.

  3. The number of specific schemes cut or downsized in areas that were subsequently flooded becomes longer with every new event, as it was bound to do: Damian Carrington in the Guardian notes a £58 million scheme in Leeds cut, extra flood defences in recently flooded Kendal repeatedly postponed, schemes cut in the Somerset Levels and Yalding in Kent before the floods of 2013/14, before that Dawlish and the Thames Valley.

  4. And for what purpose. The argument that spending had to be tight is utter nonsense. There is absolutely no evidence that if flood defence spending had been increased rather than cut by 27% in 2011/12 (as it should have been), and that higher spending maintained, the market would have stopped buying UK government debt. The UK recently sold oversubscribed 50 year debt at only 2.5% interest: with a 2% inflation target that is a real cost of only 0.5% a year. By contrast the National Audit Office in 2014 reported that the Environment Agency estimated current schemes had a benefit cost ratio of over 9:1! You have to be slightly mad to cut schemes like that when they would cost you so little to finance.

  5. David (‘greenest government ever’) Cameron in 2013 appointed Owen Paterson, a climate sceptic, to be minister in charge of DEFRA, the ministry responsible for the environment and flood defences. He cut the number of officials working on a climate change adaptation programme from 38 to six. A rather sinister aspect to this whole affair is the influence of widespread climate denial on the right might have had on all these bad and costly decisions.

  6. As it became clear how many farming practices can worsen flooding, the Labour government introduced regulations on land use with the specific aim of reducing flood damage. The coalition government scrapped these regulations.

  7. In November this year, as part of Osborne’s spending review, local authority spending on flood defences was cut by a third. The Environment Agency has to cut staff as fast as the flood risk increases, and then through gritted teeth deny this matters. This report says the Environment Agency had 800 fewer flood risk management staff in March 2014 than in September 2010.
  8. The independent, government established Committee on Climate Change has issued repeated warnings to government that spending needed to be increased, not decreased. They have all been ignored.

As Carrington says, Cameron and Osborne have ignored red flag after red flag. Cuts that make no sense in economic terms have been made with costs that probably now run in the order of a billion and counting, with plenty of human misery attached. Cameron has calculated that an appearance in wellies at each flood sight will be enough to assuage public concern. As Steve Richards notes, after each crisis when no cost is too great, Osborne goes back to playing the responsible one as he cuts regardless.

After the 2013/14 floods I wondered if this would be Cameron’s and Osborne’s Katrina. That was a mistake. For all its faults, and Fox News, the US has a more open media than the UK, particularly when the BBC is cowed by government threats. The Guardian, Independent and Mirror will complain (and the Morning Star will channel my blog!), but the large majority that never read these papers will remain ignorant of what has gone on. A chaotic Labour Party will be unable to coordinate any attack, and fail to effectively voice justifiable rage, and that will give the BBC an excuse to ignore them.

But forget austerity and partisan politics. This is fundamentally about incompetence: about ignoring repeated warnings for no good reason and causing huge costs and heartache as a result. Is no one on the right prepared to call the government to account for its failures on this issue? Will no one at the BBC confront politicians with what they have done? If they do not, I fear all we will get are fine words, one-off emergency cash, and the existing policy of effectively ignoring the threat will continue once again.          

25 comments:

  1. All Labour MPs should read this.

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    Replies
    1. but maybe a few in particular. Many Labour MPs have said sensible things on this (although they tend not to get reported), but media would listen more to coordinated responses.

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    2. I despair when there are ill-informed comments like those from Simon Danczuk: http://metro.co.uk/2015/12/28/spend-money-on-flood-defences-not-in-bangladesh-flood-hit-mp-says-5587413/

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    3. So do I, Plenty of funding for both. Ignorant Politicians get in the way.

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  2. I saw Sky News put the accurate graphs of government spending on flood defences going back to at least 2010 so people could see the fall in investment, and I heard one journalist on LBC call the government out for falsehood on its claim of raising the levels of spending on flood defence.

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  3. Excellent comments, especially on the useless state of "journalism" in this country.

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  4. I am intrigued that you point the finger at the BBC, which has at least recognised that there is a serious situation. Do you believe the print media are now irrelevant? You may be interested in this blog post on newspaper coverage, which has spectacularly failed to ask a single important question.
    http://www.sub-scribe.co.uk/editors-blog/apocalypse-now-although-you-might-not-have-noticed-because-it-happened-in-the-north

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    1. They are very relevant in my view, but hopelessly political in their coverage. For the majority of papers, you can bet the coverage would be very different if we had a Labour government.

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  5. people were more interested in whether the PM would look funny eating a sandwich or whether immigration was high enough up the agenda so they got a Tory government

    deserve everything they get

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  6. I repeatedly point out that of the socio-economic groups D & E that voted 44% voted either Tory or UKIP, although only 57% of those eligible to vote actually did

    nearly half of a demographic voting directly against their own economic interest is a phenomenon that is extremely difficult to understand

    the consequences however are not

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    Replies
    1. It's because of the dire reporting in the UK and consequently the uninformed populace not having adequate truthful information on which to base their voting decisions on, not that it really made a difference to the outcome of the election as the two most popular parties were in effect promoting the same ideals. I just hope that more people start to research information by other means than the corporate driven mainstream media that is peddled out.

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  7. And now we have Truss, making Paterson look capable and active.

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  8. The author of this article is a bought and paid for member of Corbyn's team in case anyone was going to take this seriously.

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    Replies
    1. I am sorry to disappoint you, but Corbyn's team, or the Labour party, have not and will not pay me anything. I have also advised Osborne's 'team'. With that clear, I trust you will now take me seriously.

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    2. Well said, MM, I take you seriously. Can I ask you where you stand on George Monbiot's solution by rewilding & 'slowing the flow', Please ?

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    3. Anon: out of interest, even if SWL was ' paid up', how does it change the facts and evidence presented by Defra and the EA as linked in the article?
      Or is it that you simply cannot refute the damning evidence so in desperation resort to attacking the author with false accusations ( which even were they not false, still wouldn't discredit the content of the article)?

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    4. Also, look up 'ad hominem' in a good dictionary.

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  9. The reason why nearly half of socio-economic groups D and E voted directly against their economic interest is because they view their economic interests in the very short term and are susceptible to pre-election bribes. Basically they are either stupid or selfish, or a bit of both.

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    Replies
    1. Tories will reduce immigration (2015 "pledge")
      Labours fault for all these immigrants (public press/media induced view)
      A plethora of stories inducing widespread belief that immigrants are rapists/paedophiles/worse.
      Labour destroyed the worlds finances by massive, REALLY massive, overspending (I was told, by an otherwise intelligent persons, that Labour was responsible for the £1.5 trillion debt and that they had to "pay the banks back the money they borrowed")
      All very widespread beliefs, even down here in the filthy rich south...

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    2. in the 'short term' the Tory manifesto was committed to cutting benefits by a huge amount that could not do anything other than seriously impact the economic outlook for people who claim Jobseekers, Working Tax credits and a whole host of other in work benefits

      I had this out with a guy living on benefits, working part time and having a hard time, prior to the election. He intended to vote Conservative and I said to him:

      'You do know the Tories are going to cut benefits after the election and you'll be worse off?'

      to which he said:

      'Better than the alternative'

      What, better than NOT having his income cut?

      Mind boggling stuff

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  10. Why are flood defences so immediately regarded as a duty for funds allocated by central government, rather than, for example, a business cost to be spent by the companies providing the insurance for the properties downstream in mitigation of costs they might otherwise incur? As an RSA shareholder I would be extremely happy were they, as part of a consortium of household insurers, to be paying upstream farmers to do the land management which will in the longer term wildly reduce the amounts they have to pay out for ruined wooden floors downstream.

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  11. Dear Simon, your Brazilian fan here is waiting for a post with the following headlines "How Lula/Rousseff/Kirschner/Chavez/Maduro turned a continent that had a beautiful future into a complete disaster".

    yes, not your area of expertise. But those governments claimed to follow keynesian economics. This claim needs to be debunked, fast.


    Every day you and keynesians such as Krugman, stieglitz, etc avoid this subject, your credibility and the credibility of keynes fade away.

    Have a look at the Economist cover.

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  12. Oh dear, you are not falling for the balony described as "climate change" are you? Since the Global Circulation Models are recognised as having no skill at regional level, even by the people who create them, why should any politician be guided by them? Furthermore, the Met Office itself is unable to determine whether the floods were caused by climate change (how would that be noticed over such a small length of time as a couple of years anyway, since the definition is for an average over 30 years?) or simply the result of natural variation, aka business as usual.

    https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/slingo-admits-floods-mainly-due-to-natural-variability/

    "Assuming the numbers are correct, the half a degree or so of warming recorded in the last half century should only add 3% to the moisture content of the atmosphere. UK rainfall in December has been around 200mm, so, according to theory, rainfall might be 6mm more than otherwise. In other words, the difference would actually be barely noticeable."

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