It’s a matter of choice

In my blog Fair shares for all? (posted 16 Mar 2014) I reported that there was a lack of Government funding for flood defence work and that this had, according to Lord Smith who chairs the Environment Agency (EA), been responsible for the decision not to dredge the Rivers Tone and Parrett that many believe contributed to the severity of the recent flooding of the Somerset Levels.

The good news is that the Government has capitulated to the pressure that the situation in the Somerset Levels has put it under. According to Lord Smith, in an article that he penned for The Guardian in an obvious attempt to answer his critics, the problem of funding for the Somerset Levels has now been “solved”. He put his optimism down to two factors. Firstly, a promise of £10 million of “new funding” for Somerset made by the Prime Minister following his visit there in early February. But “probably even more important”, according to Lord Smith, was the concession made by Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, that the BCR criterion would not apply to future flood prevention work in the Levels.

Another important development is that the community of the Somerset Levels, under the leadership of Somerset County Council and assisted by the Environment Agency, has, at the request of the Environment Secretary, produced the Somerset Levels and Moors Flood Action Plan. This is a twenty-year plan, which according to Somerset County Council Leader John Osman, quoted by BBC News:

“… contains some firm ideas for what we can do now, but also some broad ambitions such as a sluice or barrage for the River Parrett and long-term projects to prevent water entering the area in the first place.”

The problem is that the plan comes with a fairly hefty price tag of £100 million and the BBC tells us that “the plan suggests looking at other measures which could cost £203.78m on top of the £100m”. Concerning the Prime Minister’s promise that “money is no object” when it comes to sorting out the flooding problems, the BBC quotes Mr Paterson’s clarification that this “was a reference to the immediate recovery from flooding”. Long-term solutions are, it would appear, an entirely different matter.

So far the Government has come up with £10.5 million of this total – this is additional to Mr Cameron’s £10 million – but is looking for contributions from local sources. According to the BBC, it is Mr Paterson’s view that “there should be a partnership with locals raising money locally, doing further work which is not currently being done, and all that together will make a very good package that really will make the levels a much more stable place over the next 20 years”. So it would appear that funding is likely to remain an issue.

In another article The Guardian warns that tackling flood prevention on a national scale “will entail a large bill” and that “there are currently 490,000 properties at risk of flooding in the UK”. It would appear that the EA has a considerable backlog of projects waiting their turn. The article reports that “there are 477 projects, worth £2.2bn, that will not go ahead before 2019-20”; these projects, we are told, “would offer increased protection for 97,000 homes”.

If The Guardian is to be believed the Government is losing the battle against the growth in properties that are threatened by flooding. It reports that the EA claims that “the Government spend must increase to £1bn per year by 2035 just to stop the number of threatened properties rising”.

There would appear to be growing public support for the Government to dig deeper into the public purse to fund new flood defence schemes and maintain current defences. A You Gov poll, carried out for The Sunday Times during the first week of February, included the question:

“Thinking about government spending on flood defences, which of the following best reflects your view?

  • The government should spend more on flood defences, even if this means tax rises or bigger cuts elsewhere
  • The government is already spending as much as it can reasonably afford on flood defences
  • Don’t know”

The response to this question (reported on page 10 of the poll results) is 49%, 26%, 25%; so very nearly a 2:1 majority in favour of more spending. Significantly, the same question posed a week earlier yielded a fairly even split between those in favour of more spending and those against (38%, 36%, 26%).

So it all comes down to spending priorities, which is why, as a big-ticket item on the Government’s shopping list, HS2 became involved in the first place.

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