We now know that at least one of the flood prevention schemes that was axed when spending was first cut back in 2011 was in one of the areas of the recent flooding. It always angers me when journalists of a right wing persuasion argue that the the public has not noticed any effect from austerity under the coalition. As if increasingly missed NHS targets and crises in A&E do not count, because NHS funding has been ‘protected’. In the case of flooding earlier disasters may not have been connected to austerity because hardly anyone in the media made those connections.
My impression is that the media has been a bit more inquisitive this time around. For example the BBC’s Newsnight showed a chart of actual spending, revealing clearly the cut backs from 2011. Their subsequent interview with Neil Parish, now Conservative chair of the Environment and Rural Affairs select committee, was interesting. He suggested that maybe we (his government) should be spending more money on flood defences. The reason he gave was, to an economist, compelling: the estimated rate of return on such projects is very high.
Yet this kind of logic is completely anathema to the framework in George Osborne’s fiscal charter. This has an overall budget surplus target, which includes spending on public investment. As a result, if a strong investment opportunity like this arises, it can only be funded by cutting back on other items of public expenditure, which is always politically difficult.
Ministers argue that over the next five years capital investment in flood prevention has been ‘protected’ in real terms. With the impact of climate change on extreme weather events becoming increasingly apparent, that is completely the wrong reference point. We should be substantially increasing spending on flood defences, and those schemes should not be built to specifications that are based on past weather patterns. That kind of flexible response to recent disasters is all but ruled out by the fiscal charter.