Skimping on flood defences has proved to be a terrible false economy, and Owen Paterson's new funding now looks too little too late
“Just as the winter launched its wet weather assault on England in December, new maps from the Environment Agency identified No 10 Downing Street as one of the 5m properties now at risk of flooding. Two months later, after thousands of filthily submerged homes and at least in £1bn in damage, the murky waves of political danger now crash against the prime minister's door.
To understand how it came to this we have to go back to the sun-blessed, rose-garden days of the summer of 2010. As the austerity knife was being sharpened, one of the first to offer up a departmental budget for a juicy cut was the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman. The department, guardian of the air we breathe, the land we live on and the water we drink, suffered the biggest cut of any major department in Whitehall.
Flood defences are one of the department's big-ticket items, and inevitably those budgets immediately fell by almost £100m a year. The gloomy warnings of the government's own scientists that greater flooding would be far the most damaging impact of climate change in the UK were ignored. No matter, the sun was shining and drought, not deluge, was the concern. That changed sharply in 2012, when the dry spell broke in spring with downpours that ran to Christmas.
In July that year, I identified 294 shovel-ready flood defence schemes that had not proceeded because of the cuts. Maintenance of existing defences was suffering too. By September, Spelman had been sacked after an attempt to sell off the nation's forests. Owen Paterson took the helm, and by the end of November 2012 had wrung some money out of the Treasury to plug a little of the funding gap.
In January of this year, however, the wettest winter month for at least 250 years revealed the government's flood defence plans were as leaky as a sieve. On Thursday it was forced to throw another £130m of emergency funding into the hole – yet that still left spending this year lower than in 2010.
If Paterson had taken over a leaky ship in a squall, he had now managed to steer it into a force 10 storm. His capacity for hard work is not in doubt, nor his charisma (as I discovered personally when inadvertently doorstepping him in church on Christmas morning: he was charming). But as a senior environment department insider told me: "Sheer force of will is no substitute for thought, planning, expertise and evidence. He is an otherwise savvy politician, but he just never spends time listening to people whose views he doesn't naturally share. It's all a bit Andrew Lansley."
Had Paterson listened, he would have been told that skimping on flood defences is deeply false economy even in austere times: ministers admit each scheme saves £8 in damage for every £1 spent. The costs are now being counted across the south.
Worse, Paterson's scepticism on climate change – a ludicrous trait in an environment secretary – led him to slash by 40% his departmental spend on developing the UK's adaptation to global warming. Pre-empting the risks to mainline railway links, such as the one smashed into the sea at Dawlish that has cut off Cornwall, is precisely the role of that climate adaptation effort.
In May 2013, while ministers battled the chancellor over the next wave of cuts, Paterson stood firm, with one cabinet colleague saying: "He doesn't want to go down in history as the man who endangered Britain's flood defences."
Paterson won another partial top-up in that spending round. But, as the latest Atlantic fury advances on these islands, it looks too little too late. The attempt by Eric Pickles to blame the Environment Agency, out of which his government is ripping 25% of the staff, is panic politics at its most repulsive. (my emphasis) Paterson is in danger of being dragged under by the historical epithet he most wanted to avoid. As the howls of public anger grow, the danger for Cameron and his government is that they could sink with him." Damian Carrington, Guardian 10/2/14