Former Environment Secretary Lord Deben says national flood programmes have been neglected in past decades
By Ed King
The catastrophic flooding experienced by parts of the UK is a result of successive governments ignoring the possible consequences of global warming for the past 20 years.
That’s the view of Lord Deben, the former UK Environment Secretary and current head of the body that advises on how the country should cope with climate change.
In a series of tweets he said inadequate funding, the construction of houses on flood plains and an ignorance of climate impacts was responsible for the current situation. “We have not had a national flood programme with single focus and proper funding under any government,” he said.
“Problem for Treasury thinking is that climate change demands long term investment in everything from building standards to flood prevention.”
FLOODING POLITICS: ignore climate change:20 years inadequate funding:build widely on flood plain:blame EA working all hours for your failure
— John Deben (@lorddeben) February 10, 2014
Deben was echoing remarks made by heir to the throne Prince Charles last week, who described flooding as a “classic example” of what happens if society pays “little attention to the accumulating impact of climate change”.
Records from the UK Met Office suggest January 2014 was the wettest on record since 1910, 35% above the long-term trends. This weekend it released an analysis of the conditions linking the heavy rainfall to climate change.
“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates…as we’re beginning to detect now over the UK,” the organisation’s chief Dame Julia Slingo said on BBC Radio.
Last week intense storms washed away the main railway line between Cornwall and the rest of the UK. Around 16,000 acres of the Somerset Levels in the west country are now submerged, while flood warnings have been issued to thousands of home owners alongside the River Thames.
The scale and intensity of the rainfall and floods has a major concern of Prime Minister David Cameron, who has now taken control of the response, hosting the daily ‘COBRA meeting’.
The coalition has agreed to increase capital spending on new flood defences to £370m in 2015/16. But critics say the government has exacerbated the situation by slashing the numbers of staff employed in flood prevention.
I’ve just chaired COBRA. With more flooding on the way, I made sure every resource is available to help.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) February 9, 2014
Budget cuts mean the body tasked with dealing with the floods could lose around 25% of its staff by October.
“People need to be aware that some of the frontline staff are taking a big hit, particularly when we are facing some of the worst flooding ever seen in southern England,” the Guardian quotes an unnamed source from the Environment Agency as saying.
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole says the UK’s ability to cope with extreme weather events has been “dismantled” as a result of successive cuts and a refusal to integrate climate projections into planning.
He said: “The Prime Minister must focus his Cabinet on the crucial job of saving people’s properties, businesses and livelihoods. And then, when the floods abate, Mr Cameron must put in place a long-term action plan that protects us all from the threats posed by a changing climate.”
Simon Jenkins, head of the National Trust, called on government to back efforts to catch water before it hits floodplains, mocking claims that dredging rivers would solve the crisis.
“Flood prevention policy has changed … this involves growing more upland trees, removing river banks, damming and digging ponds, all to cut river spate and reduce soil erosion. Where implemented it has been startlingly effective,” he said.
Longer term plans to develop a flood compensation scheme have already received heavy criticism for omitting potential impacts of climate change into their calculations.
This means the proposed Flood Re programme will only cover 500,000 homes, as opposed to 970,000 official figures suggest may be in danger by the 2020s.
“What is clear is that just looking back at the historical record to plan flood defences or set insurance premiums is increasingly misleading,” said Professor Myles Allen from Oxford University “The climate is changing, and the sooner we understand in detail what these changes mean for Britain, the better.”
The EU’s climate change adaptation strategy report, published in April, warns the regional cost of not preparing for extreme weather events is estimated at €100 billion a year in 2020 and €250 billion in 2050 for the region.
Between 1980 and 2011 it says floods killed more than 2,500 people, affected more than 5.5 million and caused direct economic losses of more than €90 billion.
“We haven’t really done what we really need to do to prepare,” Åse Johannessen, a water expert from the Stockholm Environment Institute told RTCC. “We wait until it’s really evident and until it’s a big thing.
“Those are the events that trigger a political and societal response. There is not enough coordination or initiatives have taken place from the EU or national governments. This is an issue that requires big thinking, long-term thinking.”
Code red: Environment Agency flood warnings on February 10