Election Countdown – A vote for flood investment

Written By: European Sales Director, Hydro International

Bradford Upon Avon Flood

With the countdown to the 2015 General Election underway, the two main parties have already gone head-to-head on flood spending and flooding is a fighting issue in a number of key marginal seats, which should keep it in the public eye.

Meanwhile, in a highly-unusual show of unity, the three main parties came together on –Valentine’s Day – to make a joint pledge to combat climate change. For the Climate Coalition’s ‘Show the Love’ campaign, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband wrote a joint letter in which they promised to work together to accelerate climate action in the UK and overseas. But will this enthusiasm translate into a commitment to flood defence funding?

While it would clearly be inappropriate for me to reveal my political allegiances, it will be interesting to see how the main parties talk about and prioritise flood issues in the run-up to the election. There are strong reasons for flooding to be high on the political agenda of all the parties:

According to the Environment Agency, in England alone some 5.2 million properties are at risk of flooding and damage costs are in the region of £1.1 billion. These costs could rise to as much as £27 billion by 2080. It has been estimated that maintaining existing levels of flood defence would require flood defence spending to increase to over £1 billion per year by 2035.

The National Infrastructure Plan, which was released in December 2014, showed that some £2.3 billion of government spending is being rolled out for flood defence and protection, which the Treasury estimates will prevent over £30 billion of damage.

However, overall expenditure is expected to be 10% lower in the current spending period than it was in the last one. This was confirmed by the Head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, last year, when he intervened in a political row on flood defence finance in the wake of the flood crisis on the Somerset Levels.

For those seeking election in May, it is worth remembering that flood victims are voters too – and often the economically-invested owners of homes, farms and businesses. Even at lower levels, it’s no secret that spending on flood infrastructure delivers an impressive bang for your buck. The fact that every £1 spent on flood defences is calculated to save £8 in damages is a politician’s favourite statistic.

So, politicians of all party colours may say they want to reduce the risk of flooding and provide better protection for communities, but whose policies could deliver?

The tripartite Climate Pledge would certainly seem to be a good start.

Speaking at the UN in New York last September, Prime Minister David Cameron described global warming as “one of the most serious threats facing our world.” His Environment Secretary Liz Truss proudly told the Conservative Party Conference last year that the UK is “leading international efforts to tackle climate change.”

Such high level enthusiasm for a serious issue is encouraging, but has it translated into policy? A recent Top 6 list of the Conservative Party’s priorities6 for its election manifesto, published on ConservativeHome.com, didn’t include flooding and infrastructure spending.

It’s also worth observing that former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who got in a tangle with the scientific consensus during the flooding last year, is still sharing his climate sceptic views on the fringes of the party and, according to some commentators, both views run in strong parallel through the party.

From the relative comfort of opposition, Labour says the Government has failed to rise to the challenge and says it will prioritise efforts to tackle climate change, both at home and abroad. Perhaps the most interesting infrastructure policy on the table is Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls’ commitment to setting up an independent National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), outlined in a conference speech on 3 February.

Emerging out of Labour’s Armitt Review of Infrastructure, the NIC would identify long-term infrastructure needs and flood defence spending in the context of a 25-30 year plan.

The Coalition Government is still firmly behind its partnership-funding model, where investment is dependent on securing matched funding from local stakeholders. Writing on his party’s website, Liberal Democrat MP and Under Secretary of State for Water, Dan Rogerson says the Government is “working to make it easier for local authorities and communities to take their own action to reduce flood risk, enabling them to take charge.” The partnership model promises to deliver the advantages of localism and at the same time get defence projects built that might otherwise stall.

Echoing the views of his boss, Liz Truss, Rogerson says that providing better protection from floods “must be a joint effort between government and local partners on the ground. It cannot be dictated from Westminster.”

However the new Government might have some way to go to achieve this. Earlier this month the Environment & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee Chair Anne McIntosh MP expressed concern about the relatively small amounts of private sector funding secured to date under the Partnership Funding approach: “We support the principle that the private sector should help to fund new flood defence schemes,” she said, “but we have repeatedly expressed concern about the relatively small amounts of private sector funding secured to date under the Partnership Funding approach, with only £40M of the £148M secured up to 2014-15 coming from sources beyond local government.”

As for the minor parties, UKIP doesn’t list flood spending as one of its ‘50 reasons to vote for UKIP’ on its website.The party’s energy spokesman, Roger Helmer, recently said the science on climate change was “open to question” and, if elected, his party wants to immediately repeal the Climate Change Act.

Conversely, the Green Party has flooding and climate change at the heart of its mini-manifesto. They promise to tackle climate change by moving Europe to a renewable energy based economy and “investing in upland water conservation and flood defences” to protect communities from extreme weather events.

Tough decisions will have to be made by whoever takes control of Government on 7th May – and according to political observers, there is a strong likelihood that no party will have overall control, meaning smaller parties could have more influence than ever before. Building on the 2010 Flood & Water Management Act, which provided for better management of flood risk, what is now needed is a cross-party consensus not only on climate change, but also on how to deliver flood resilient infrastructure.

Electioneering will never deliver the long-term planning and investment needed to protect vulnerable communities. We need a long-term cooperative approach to flood defence and mitigation, rooted in a philosophy that is sensitive to our urban and upstream water environment and robust in eradicating the risk to householders, businesses and communities.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take yet another devastating spate of serious flooding to keep the need for better flood defences at the top of the political agenda.

More news on this topic:

Efra MPs Question Plans to Attract Private Floods Funding

ICE Manifesto Calls for Long-Term Flood Risk Investment



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