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Water: Spooked politicians are undermining flood defence policy with short term decisions

David Demeritt

In the face of the ongoing flooding crisis the government is spooked. But making policy on the hoof and in a panic is a recipe for errors and incoherence.

Going back to before Thatcher, successive governments have insisted on using cost-benefit analysis to prioritise spending and ensure the greatest net benefits from public spending on flood risk management.

This was the strategy that the Environment Agency successfully executed in the Somerset Levels. It was a strategy designed, first and foremost, to keep water away from cities and towns like Taunton and Bridgwater, which have been largely unscathed, even as, in the face of record-setting rains, water has inevitably accumulated on low lying-farmland in the levels.

We will come to regret some of the promises made in haste at the height of the crisis

The toll on those affected has been terrible, but their numbers are small compared to what would happen if we sluiced the water downstream through Bridgwater.

Similarly in the Thames valley, London and its larger satellite centres, like Reading and Maidenhead, enjoy higher levels of publicly funded protection than outlying villages and rural areas, which have borne the brunt of the flooding to date.

This is no accident. It is the inevitable result of two conflicting policies. First, we have more people living in areas at risk of flooding.

With governments trying to meet the relentless demand for housing and many greenbelt sites protected from development, local authorities have allowed development of areas prone to flooding, often in the face of strong objections from the Environment Agency. Surely there is an element here of buyer beware.

Second, for decades now the demand for flood defences has outstripped the public funding available to pay for it. Despite allocating some £535M to flooding and coastal erosion risk management in the last fiscal year, there are hundreds of shovel-ready projects, scattered up and down the length and breadth of the country that are not going ahead because there is not enough money to fund them.

Panicked promises

And this is where the panicked promises from ministers threaten to upset the careful prioritisation of public investment on flood risk protection schemes.

The money for victims needs to come from somewhere, and if it doesn’t come from the flood defence budget itself, pushing worthy schemes down the priority listing and leaving those that would be protected at risk from future flooding, it will displace other public investments in schools, hospitals, and social care.

Ministers continually remind us that public monies are tight but in the face of bad headlines and the undeniable suffering in what are largely Tory-held constituencies, they have panicked, promising to splash the cash like there is no tomorrow.

The victims of this awful flooding may well be worthy recipients of public largess, but we will come to regret some of the other promises made in haste at the height of the crisis.

In the face of loud complaining from farmers on the Somerset Levels, government ministers have rejected expert advice from the Environment Agency and pledged to renew dredging of agricultural drains. In so doing, they are reversing a settled policy of some 50 years that, if generalised beyond Somerset as ministers seem to be imply, will speed the flow of flood waters from farmland into homes in built up areas, diverting scarce public funding for flood defence to the narrow sectoral interests of farmers.

  • David Demeritt is professor of geography at King’s College London

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