Expect storms ahead over local flood crisis funds
David Cameron had a ready answer when cornered by angry flood victims in Kent, who faced the first days of 2014 knee deep in water with no electricity: blame your council.
Unable either to find suitable words of comfort or promise a ready Whitehall response, the PM adopted the ultimate default position in which English local government provides the answer to all local ills – which, of course, it should, and often does, in spite of being forced to make savings of £20bn this parliament
But put aside woeful political ignorance and the small matter of councils no longer controlling much of Britain's energy – that responsibility was taken from them post-1945 (although some are bravely entering the market as smaller players with big ambitions).
Consider, instead, the reality of councils, alongside an emasculated Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – the body responsible for flood defences and, crucially, food security – shouldering the burden of massive budget cuts at a time of rising challenges induced by climate change.
Massive? That's the description from Anne McIntosh MP, Conservative chair of the Defra select committee, who ventured last week that recent flooding reinforced concern about a shrinking Defra budget – "a small department facing massive cuts" – and its ability to respond to emergencies.
Ditto local government, which will lose around a third of its funding from 2010 to 2015, with much worse to come in the event of another Tory-led government. According to the McIntosh committee, just a fifth of Defra staff believe management has a "clear vision of the future" in a department that has also lost over a third of its budget since 2010
The sight of a hapless environment secretary, Owen Paterson, trying to justify 1,700 job cuts (15% of staff) over the coming year in the Environment Agency – the quango responsible for England's flood defences – was truly painful as water engulfed swaths of the south-east and south-west.
While Paterson said he had been assured by the agency it could cope with the flooding, its chief executive has warned that the cuts will affect its ability to deal with extreme weather. Cameron conceded last week thatclimate change was probably to blame.
But where's the plan? Roads are crumbling – according to the Local Government Association, the repairs backlog is now £10.5bn – and drains are blocked and sometimes irreparable, with resulting water "run-off" compounding floods.
And four years after the Flood Defence Act, which requires housebuilders to create developments which ensure rainwater runs off naturally – rather than clogging up already overloaded drainage systems – it seems clear that Defra no longer has the staff to ensure the legislation is enforced. No one is more overjoyed than a lightly regulated building industry.
On the ground, it's clear that local councils, alongside the Environment Agency, have worked wonders in the first weeks of this year, helping to defend vulnerable homes, finding emergency accommodation for flood victims, and repairing breached defences in high-risk areas.
But England faces a crisis on several fronts as sea levels rise due to global warning and weather patterns become more volatile. First, the regions earmarked for substantial growth and new housing – the east of England and the south-east particularly – are the most susceptible to flooding. Second, the highest proportion of top-grade agricultural land is in the south-east and east in a nation that produces only 60% of the food it needs. And, third, we have no national plan to deal with these stark realities.
It is the most sobering prospect for 2014 when the only certainty is yet more cuts to local government and agencies charged with defending England from the ravages of climate change.