This is a question which has come into sharp focus with the recent flooding, as County Cllr Claire Wright has pointed out in the Express & Echo recently:
Comment: Cuts to spending on flood defences are a false economy
By Exeter Express and Echo | Posted: January 15, 2016
Children help firefighters clear up after flooding in the grounds of Tipton St John School
Claire Wright, Independent County Councillor for Ottery Rural, examines the Government's record after the recent floods, including in East Devon
Every £1 spent on flood defences prevents almost £10 in damage.
The ability of water to create devastation has recently been apparent. But the danger, and the threat has long been known.
Scientists told us many years ago that climate change would result in more and more serious storms, as well as rising sea levels. Over the last couple of months there have been repeated major flood events, mainly in the north of the country.
These are not, as government ministers claim, one-off unprecedented events. These are a result of climate change.
Here in East Devon we have avoided the worst of the flooding this time, although in my own ward Tipton St John Primary School has once again suffered flood damage. The buildings were within an inch being flooded and the grounds ended up full of mud and had to be cleared by dozens of energetic members of the community, including children and the fire service, who all pitched in together (with me) on Monday 4 January.
In 2008 the school was evacuated for four months when the buildings had to be repaired after serious flood damage in the infamous October storm.
A new site was identified for the school in 2014 on the edge of the village - and an application was made to central government for funds to build it. Very unfortunately, ministers rejected it, so now teachers, parents and the children are forced to continually prepare for heavy rain – awaiting the next flood. It takes a lot of time and energy. The grounds became waterlogged three times last year.
In the past the Otter Valley has suffered a series of devastating flood events. In August 1997, 57 properties in eastern and central ottery were flooded.
In October 2008 there was twice as much rain - yet Ottery's flood defence scheme (opened in 2005) ensured that only four properties in central and eastern Ottery were flooded. Four too many, of course.
So what is the government doing to help?
Well if you have heard David Cameron or environment secretary Liz Truss being interviewed, you would have got the impression that millions of pounds of new money was being pumped into flood defences.
You would be wrong.
David Cameron has promised to invest £400m a year on shoring up flood defences over the next six years; but official data shows spending was cut sharply at the start of the last parliament, from £360m in 2010-11, to less than £270m in 2012-13.
The National Audit Office warned in November 2014 that, excluding a one-off spending boost of £270m in the wake of the Somerset Levels floods of winter 2013-14, total funding for flood protection had declined by 10 per cent in real terms since 2010-11, and "sustaining the current standard of flood protection is challenging in this context, especially as climate change increases the load on flood defences."
In November 2014, a damning report from the National Audit Office (NAO) found the risk of flooding was indeed RISING as a result of government funding cuts. Furthermore, half the nation's flood defences had been left with "minimal" maintenance, according to the spending watchdog.
The NAO also contradicted Cameron's claim that his government was spending more than ever before on flood defences. Funding had fallen by 10 per cent in real terms, said the NAO, when £270m of one-off emergency funding after the 2013-14 floods was excluded.
Flood defences are big ticket items and hard to fund when the nation's finances are tight. But not finding the money is a clear false economy, as well as causing misery to many people. The NAO report said every £1 spent on flood defences prevented almost £10 in damage. It noted that Cameron's £270m bail-out was poor substitute for sustained spending: "Ad-hoc emergency spending is less good value than sustained maintenance."
The government's £2.3bn of planned capital spending on flood defences over the next six years compares to £15bn on roads over the same period – and almost £16bn on high-speed rail.
But, with the increase in flash floods across the country, there are many who believe it is time for the government to start looking at flood prevention differently. Less in terms of concrete - and more in terms of the provision of natural materials such as tree planting and landscaping.
The Woodland Trust, of which I am the Devon Tree Champion, say that there is good evidence that planted in the right places, such as on hills, trees can soak up heavy rainfall and prevent it from running off high ground and into communities.
The Forestry Commission says on its website: "There is strong evidence that floodplain woodlands could play a more important role in ameliorating downstream flooding."
Horticulture Week stated on 8 January 2016: "An earlier study commissioned by the trust of a sheep farming area in Wales found that planting tree belts across slopes increased infiltration into the soil at more than 60 times the rate of neighbouring pastures, as well as reducing soil loss and providing shelter for the sheep."
But there is another problem. The government's relaxed planning rules and its determination to make it easier to build in lots of places that previously wouldn't have been allowable.
The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework relaxed rules on building in or near areas that flood. And although floodplains (technically those areas near a river) are not supposed to be built on, the pressure is on for many other areas that are not classified as such, but are still prone to flooding.
Feniton, which has also been badly flood hit in the past, will attest to many residents fury, that attenuation tanks are apparently the answer. Time will tell….
Essentially, my view is that once again, the government's austerity agenda is proving to be a totally false economy. And unfortunately, it is only when we reach a crisis point do ministers wake up and smell the coffee.
I hope that the rest of 2016 is at least drier than the first couple of weeks.
Comment: Cuts to spending on flood defences are a false economy | Exeter Express and Echo
Spending cuts to flood defences are a false economy - Claire Wright
Concern has been expressed from all sides:
David Cameron faces the wrath of flood victims as he is heckled about government cuts during visit to flood hit-areas | Daily Mail Online
Environment Agency chairman's PR disaster distracted from the real flooding story | Damian Carrington | Environment | The Guardian
Flooding crisis made worse by climate change and cuts to services
By Martin Empson, treasurer of the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union group
In 2015 Britain has seen repeated flooding causing large-scale damage. Tens of thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes, suffered days without power and seen their homes and businesses destroyed as storms repeatedly hit the country. In the latest bout of flooding, thousands of people in Manchester, Leeds and York have been hit, sometimes with the worst floods ever, as rivers broke banks.
In Salford, Greater Manchester, the local news magazine, The Salford Star reported that residents had had almost no notice of the floods. People complained that flood gates failed to work after they hadn’t been properly re-fitted following repair work on the estates.
David Cameron has expressed sympathy with victims, and celebrated the work of the emergency workers. But his government’s policies have made the situation far worse. Back in 2011, the then Tory-Liberal coalition government announced an 8 percent cut (£540 million) in spending on flood defences. Government policies that favour the fossil fuel industry, such as fracking, will only increase emissions leading to further climate change and more frequent floods.
Trade unions that represent workers in the emergency services have repeatedly warned of the impacts of austerity measures on their ability to deal with flooding and other severe weather.
Unison, for instance, which represents workers at the Environment Agency, reported how cuts would reduce its ability to prevent and respond to flooding and tidal surges. In 2012/13 the grant was £124 million less than in 2009/10. [https://www.unison.org.uk/at-work/water-environment-and-transport/key-issues/cuts-at-the-environment-agency/]
Staff numbers at the Agency have been reduced by around 1000. The November 2015 autumn statement pledged that the Agency would have its funding for flood defences “preserved”, but the rest of its budget would decrease by 15%. The government claims that it is protecting front line services that respond to emergencies and help prevent flooding, but cutting behind the scenes staff and resources hit the ability of workers to deal with crises, and the ability to make long term plans for future, worsening, weather.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has also highlighted the way that cuts will affect its ability to respond to emergencies such as flooding. In response to the most recent floods the FBU said that “threats posed by such large scale floods are beyond the capacity of local services to cope. The impact of massive cuts to funding of the country’s fire and rescue service is being felt by all firefighters, including those who are aiding flood rescue.”
Simon Hickman, Manchester FBU Brigade Organiser, whose members were on the front line dealing with floods in Salford said, “We’re stretched to the limit with the lack of resources due to the cuts, and we’ve just been told that £15.8 million is to be cut locally. It is bad enough this time but it will be far worse next time. We had 56 fire engines available, the majority were committed to incidents. Yet we are told we may be cut down to as few as 30 at night time, which will remove any resilience in the future”.
Even Coastguard services have been cut back.
The government is well aware of the increased risks of flooding because of climate change. Almost a decade ago, in 2006, Nicolas Stern wrote an extensive report into the economic impacts of climate change for the then Labour government which warned that “Infrastructure damage from flooding and storms is expected to increase substantially” unless there were flood management policies that could avoid this. In purely economic terms, Stern saw the situation as getting far worse as global warming increased, warning that
“The costs of flooding in Europe are likely to increase, unless flood management is strengthened in line with the rising risk. In the UK, annual flood losses could increase from around 0.1% of GDP today to 0.2 – 0.4% of GDP once global temperature increases reach 3 to 4°C.”
These floods are not “unprecedented” they are the new norm. Climate change means that we are going to see more frequent and more extreme flooding. In order to protect lives, homes and businesses we need to reverse the cuts to emergency services and the Environmental Agency and increase funding.
We also need investment that can reduce the impact of climate change. Writing in The Guardian, environmental campaigner George Monbiot has shown that planting trees can help the soil absorb water. Rather than cuts, we should be creating jobs that can save lives, protect property and reduce the impact of climate change.
But we also need to drastically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. This is why the Campaign against Climate Change, with seven national trade unions, and the National Union of Students are calling for One Million Climate Jobs. The creation of such jobs, through investment in renewable energy, insulation schemes, public transport and energy reduction could reduce emissions from the UK by 86% in twenty years. The trade union movement recognises that climate change is no longer an abstract discussion, but a reality. Dealing with it can help create jobs and improve society.
In 2014 David Cameron told flooded communities in the South-West that “money was no object” in helping them recover from that year’s floods. In 2016 we must hold him to that statement and demand the sort of investment that can prevent future disasters.
READ THE ONE MILLION CLIMATE JOBS REPORT HERE (PDF)
News | One Million Climate Jobs
Floods, climate change and job cuts | globalclimatejobs