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Comment - Adaptation is the key to securing our future

The calendar if not the weather tells us that summer is drawing to a close. And as our politicians start the slow return from their well earned/long holidays, many will have had time to reflect on the possibility of an early general election and specifically what to do to win favour with their constituents.

Bearing in mind all they see around them - not least the continued sunny skies above Westminster - they could do worse than focus this term on the forthcoming Climate Change Bill as a key way to change every voter’s life for the better.

Of course there is nothing quite like a disaster to focus the mind and hopefully the summer floods will be still in MPs’ minds. And as Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young points out this week, while many people “got a fright”, important lessons were learnt.

It was clear that large parts of the UK really did come perilously close to becoming national emergencies. And for the hundreds of people still displaced from their flooded homes, the emergency still exists. The lessons learnt will come as little consolation.

But the fact is that we were woken up to the reality that our world and its climate really is changing. Regardless of what we think is causing this change, we need to start planning to adapt to the new reality.

Yet to date the government’s response to this new reality has been far too limp.

OK, I agree that it is pretty unusual, perhaps even unprecedented for government to respond with extra cash quite so quickly after such an event. And as Barbara Young points out this week, the extra £200M pledged for flood defence really is new money.

But for me the question remains why this money was pledged so quickly? With so much pressure being exerted by Gordon Brown to keep a lid on public spending, why did £200M suddenly get conjured from nowhere?

Certainly there had been a fairly sustained campaign by the Environment Agency to drive home how vulnerable our flood defences are becoming. But on the other hand, just days before the handout, MPs were publicly mauling Young over her failure to spend the existing budget effectively and leaving major parts of the UK flood defence in poor condition - a charge she later robustly defended.

So I fear that what really made the difference was the wall to wall images across the media of England disappearing under muddy brown water which threatened to take the gloss off the new prime minister’s arrival.

Does that matter? Well yes, if the value of infrastructure investment really hasn’t sunk in; no, if these images really have put the willies up Mr Brown.

I really do hope that it is the latter and that politicians are starting to understand how early investment can reap long term reward. An understanding that spending £200M now will not only save billions of pounds later on but also give real huge social benefits in terms of public and community confidence.

To this end the Climate Change Bill is crucial. It must have adaptation policies at its heart to force infrastructure owners to take action to protect our way of life. Reality can no longer be ignored.

Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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