Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 28 December 2015

UK flood prevention: the missing billion

2007 saw very bad flooding in the UK. A report was commissioned from Michael Pitt (no longer available on a government website, but available here (pdf), HT @FiDaisyG) which stated:
ES.12 The scale of the problem is, as we know, likely to get worse. We are not sure whether last summer’s events were a direct result of climate change, but we do know that events of this kind are expected to become more frequent. The scientific analysis we have commissioned as part of this Review (published alongside this Report) shows that climate change has the potential to cause even more extreme scenarios than were previously considered possible. The country must adapt to increasing flood risk.

The Labour government responded to this review by substantially increasing central government spending on flood prevention. It reached a peak in 2010/11, the last year of the relevant spending review. Subsequently the coalition government, as part of its austerity policy, cut back on spending, going directly against the spirit of the Pitt review.

It was obvious following 2007 that substantially more money needed to be spent on flood prevention as a result of climate change, and the Labour government acted on that knowledge. The Coalition government ignored it. Suppose that instead of cutting, the coalition government had allowed spending to increase each year by 2% from that 2010/11 level: a very modest rise given the nature of the risk. That would have meant that by 2015/16 around £500 million more in 15/16 prices would have been spent in total, which is about three quarters of the total amount spent this year. As 2014/15 is acknowledged as a one-off positive blip, by 2020/21 under Conservative plans we will probably be looking at missing expenditure near £1 billion. And that is despite all the flooding that has occurred since 2011, some of the damage from which must be the result of this missing spending. That is a huge spending gap created by the Conservatives.

Spending on Flood Protection, 15/16 prices: actual (source DEFRA) and hypothetical 2% growth path


I still find it remarkable that no one has held the government to account for this huge failure. Flooding is currently costing at least £1 billion a year. Even if filling that spending gap had prevented only a small proportion of these current and future costs, it would have produced a handsome return, as well as avoiding a great deal of individual heartbreak. Yet the government continues to get away with talking about unprecedented rainfall, as if no one had thought this might happen. John Deben, Chairman of the Statutory Committee on Climate Change, tweets
"Surprising no broadcaster seems to have sought to discuss advice on flooding and adaptation to climate change given to Government"

The Labour Party too appears to have made no attempt to coordinate a media attack on the government, in an area where their own record was exemplary. DEFRA secretary of state at the time that Labour increased flood defences was Hilary Benn, who is MP for Leeds (one of the areas affected by flooding) and Ed Miliband was the minister in charge of energy and climate change. The current DEFRA shadow minister is Kerry McCarthy, and all I could find from her on flooding was this and this.

Speaking about the latest flooding, David Cameron said “We will do everything we can to help people in this, their hour of need.” It is a shame that no one seems capable of asking him why he added to these needs, by ignoring the growing evidence (including the Pitt review) that more money needed to be spent on flood defences.   

21 comments:

  1. Spending money on flood defences to secure a greater gain in prevention of flood damages sounds like a good buy, and it is, but that misses the point of government cuts.

    The purpose of austerity is to transfer the burden of debt from the Government to households and businesses. Not spending on flood prevention helps with this aim.

    The potential for economic catastrophe remains within the government's policy, but there aim is not to invest for a return, it is to "shrink the state".

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    1. "The purpose of austerity is to transfer the burden of debt from the Government to households and businesses."

      Why would you want to do this when a government can take out debt at a much lower rate of interest than individuals? Do you think an optimal solution is one where the country's flood defences are being funded by individuals through short-term loans at rates of interest in the hundreds of percent?

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    2. You will shrink the country when you do not spend on flood prevention. Look at what The Netherlands is doing!!

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  2. On the other hand we could just go back to dredging the rivers.

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    1. Really?
      You need to look at the problems that causes for those dredging.
      Note: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/waste-exemptions-disposing-of-waste
      Now, many rivers, especially those running through built-up areas, do not have available space to deposit the amount removed. You cannot dump it anywhere else other than in the immediate vicinity of the work. You cannot deposit it in a neighbouring field, for instance.
      50 metres is not much with a large river as well...
      If the spoil has to be removed, it has also to be disposed-of as contaminated waste. Expensive. As is the movement of same.

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    2. That improves flooding: http://www.monbiot.com/2014/01/13/drowning-in-money/

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  3. Maybe if Hilary Benn had concentrated on this area of which he should have direct knowledge and steered clear of doing a mirthless impression of Joyce Grenfell in his cobbled-together speech on bombing Syria he may have been in some way productive. His tweet was on the BBC, which was descriptive of the 'torrent', but there was no repeat of the red-blooded (or blue-blooded) passion he showed when instigating war with those super-precise bombs that the allies so desperately wanted and which not a single one of them had been dropped a week after the RAF had been called into action.

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  4. Sadly, the Tories' failings on flood defence go well beyond their cutting of funds. They've also relaxed or eliminated a lot of regulations governing land management and farming, encouraging rural landowners and farmers to do things like removing trees and leaving fields fallow over winter. Both of these greatly reduce the soil's capacity to absorb water, meaning that when you have periods of heavy rainfall all of it immediately drains into the nearest river and creates huge flood volumes. More sensible land management practices (like those mandated under Blair's governments) help to prevent this and cost the government almost nothing to implement. The Tories tore up the relevant regulations to appease the farming lobby and large rural landowners, and people living downstream along major rivers get to pay the price.

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  5. Again the Tories apply count the cost and ignore the value rule. They are also probably the worst government we have ever had on prevention failure.
    If Labour were not so utterly and irresponsibly navel-gazing they could take the Tories apart. Just what have we done to deserve two such parties?I know, I know, we (someone) voted for them!

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    1. Either way labour cannot win.
      Say nothing and people say they are ducking the issue/guilt/ etc.
      Say "we did it better" and the papers will say they are using the flooding for political ends.
      That is the problem with a conservative-owned newspaper industry/media..

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    2. Actually on this occasion I think it is more like that individual Labour MPs and Shadow ministers are saying the right thing, but are being largely ignored by the media. What Labour need more than anything else right now is good media people who can shout at the TV media.

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  6. a shame the above graph was not in the hands of the BBC R4 reporter yesterday interviewing the Environment minister. She was allowed to get away with insisting there had been no reduction in spending "in real terms" for several fruitless minutes.

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    1. Ditto for the 10 o'clock news. Instead they showed a map of the UK with a dot for each flood defence project being planned to show how much is being done. Doesn't strike me as unbiased reporting in any sense.

      It's like if half the country's population dies, and you show a dot for each person still alive to claim that everything's just fine...

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    2. "It's like if half the country's population dies, and you show a dot for each person still alive to claim that everything's just fine..."

      A standard practice: see most DWP press releases.

      ~ Michele Eve

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  7. Hello Professor, just to note that when I post this to my Facebook account, the summary reproduces your paragraph above on Comments underneath the headline title, when really just the headline is required.

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  8. Another great graph SWL but yet again Labour seem determined to drop the ball. There again was Cameron lying like a trooper to all who would listen. It will be interesting if he repeats the lies in the House, as that used to be a resigning issue once upon a time when the members had some semblance of integrity.

    Some people urge river dredging as the answer to this problem, I lived in Keswick in 2009. In Derwent-water, some 2sq miles in area and an average depth of 18 feet the water level rose 12 feet, you would have to dredge a pretty big hole in the river bed to contain that amount of water, in any river bed come to that.

    Many of the small valley towns in Yorks/Lancs were expanded/built in the days of textile weaving to take advantage of the water, which now floods them, as a power source and to facilitate cotton weaving, an odd irony.

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  9. Please use your influence as an economic adviser to the Shadow Chancellor to point out the simple facts you raise and that the country actually needs an opposition which can use this information productively and also speak from the heart when pointing it out. As pointed out by one of your other commentators if Benn could put as much passion and oratory into raising this issue as he did on bombing Syria we might get somewhere.

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    1. Its not what they say that is so much the problem as how they say it. McDonnell headlined on offering bipartisan support for more spending, when he should have been much more aggressive. They need better spin doctors.

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  10. Have you checked what was in Darling's planned budget for 2010? Most of the capital spending cuts in the first coalition budget actually followed Labour's plans.

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  11. Fixing the Floods - MMT approach
    http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2015/12/fixing-floods-modern-money-approach.html?m=1

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  12. Have you checked what was in Darling'sarranged spending plan for 2010? The vast majority of the capital spending cuts in the primary coalition spending plan really took after Labor's arrangements.

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