Isn’t the weather awful? Can’t think why. Labour recently speculated on whether Owen “climate change will be good for the UK” Paterson, the Environment Secretary (so help us all) might have been the teensy-weensiest bit blinkered about investing in flood defences. Instant howls of “cheap shot” outrage “spending has never been higher” from the Tories. Blah blah blah. Well, now Friends of the Earth (you can join here. The Manchester site is here) have issued a detailed statement, that makes depressingly predictable and predictably depressing reading.
Cameron’s claims on flood defences don’t stack up
David Cameron’s claims about flood defence spending aren’t borne out by the Government’s own figures.
Sometimes you have to say things many, many times for get politicians to listen. Back in October, I challenged Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s claims about flood defence spending, arguing that he was presiding over a cut in spending, rather than a rise. I certainly wasn’t the first – others who have previously highlighted the Coalition’s cuts to flood defence spending have included the House of Commons Library, the Committee on Climate Change, and the Guardian’s Damian Carrington.
Still, these warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears, until this past week. Now, with Britain battered by torrential rain and widespread flooding, Owen Paterson has been forced to defend his department’s policies. Most significantly of all, the Prime Minister has had to intervene, claiming: “We’re spending £2.3 billion in this four-year period on flood defences, which is more than the previous four-year period.”
As I say, we’ve been over this ground before: it’s a claim that isn’t true, and moreover, it fails to mention that we should be spending much more on flood defences if we’re to keep pace with climate change.
But because the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary have set so much store by this claim, I felt obliged to re-examine my figures, just to check. To be fair, it is a surprisingly confusing subject, with multiple sets of statistics being bounced around by different bodies. I apologise in advance for the dense stats and lengthy explanation that follow, but bear with me, it’s worth it.
Let’s begin with the figures for flood defence spending set out by the National Audit Office (NAO) in a report from October 2011. The NAO is a well-respected body, a trustworthy source free from political axes to grind, so you’d expect their statistics to be accurate. The table below shows the ‘grant-in-aid’ funding Defra has given to the Environment Agency for flood and coastal risk management work between 2007 and 2015 (the years 2011-2015 based on what the Coalition had then formally announced in terms of spending).
|Year||Total spending (£m)||Total over 4-year period (£m)|
As you can see, according to the NAO, the four-year period from 2007-2011 saw spending of £2,236m (that is to say, around £2.2bn) on flood defence; whereas the Coalition’s budget was very clearly lower – having been cut to a total of £2,014m over the four-year period 2011-2015. It’s important to remember that, although the Coalition Government came into power in May 2010, government expenditure for the financial year 2010-11 had been already set under Labour; it’s from 2011 onwards that constitute the Coalition’s flood defence spending policies.
However, the NAO’s figures aren’t complete. In November 2012, responding to serious flooding across much of the UK, the then new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson managed to wring an additional £120m of funding out of the Treasury for flood defences (£35m more to spend in 2013/14 and £85m more in 2014/15). So when you add that in, the total figure for the four-year period 2011-2015 rises to £2,134m – but still lower than the previous four years. These figures are confirmed by the Parliamentary EFRA Select Committee, who reported on flood defence spending in July last year.
So, what’s going on? The Prime Minister’s claim isn’t backed by either the NAO or the EFRA Select Committee – who themselves state they source their figures from Defra and the Environment Agency. So, I went back to Defra’s webpages to see what they had to say for themselves. Defra’s most recent statistics for flood defence spending are from April 2013, and confusingly, they set out a slightly different set of numbers to the ones reported by the NAO and EFRA committee. I’ve put the totals in the table below, alongside the NAO figures for comparison (and including the extra £120m in the NAO column).
|Year||Defra figures for total spending (£m)||Defra total over 4-year period (£m)||NAO figures for total spending (£m)||NAO total over 4-year period (£m)|
|2007/8||No data||No data||436|
|2010/11||664.1||1,860.2 (over 3 years)||629||2,236|
As the table shows, Defra’s figures are consistently higher across all years than the NAO/ EFRA stats. Crucially, for the four years 2011-2015, they sum to £2,320m – the £2.3bn figure that David Cameron has recently been referring to in media appearances. So this would appear to be the source for his claim. But the Defra figures don’t provide evidence for his other claim, that “we are spending more over this four-year period than the previous four-year period”, because the document only provides figures for the previous three years, 2008-11. Clearly this wouldn’t be a fair comparison – it’d be like comparing apples with oranges. This, naturally, aroused my suspicion, so I dug deeper.
It seems that the reason for Defra’s slightly higher figures for flood defence spending can be almost wholly (though not entirely) explained by a separate smaller set of budget lines not accounted for by the NAO or EFRA – monies that Defra themselves administer to Local Authorities and Drainage Boards, rather than giving to the Environment Agency to hand out. So, the crucial question then becomes: what are the comparable figures for the ‘missing year’ of 2007/8?
I googled and searched, and eventually found a set of tables on an archived part of the Defra website which appear to hold the answer. These show that for 2007/8, in addition to the £436m of flood defence funds already accounted for in the NAO’s analysis, Defra administered a further £70.2m of funds to LAs and IDBs for flood defences. This would bring the total for the year to £506m… meaning that over the four-year period 2007-11, the government spent £2,366m on flood defence: slightly more than the £2,320m being spent over the current four-year period.
In other words, the Prime Minister is not correct to claim that his government is spending more in the current four-year period than in the previous one.
And quite apart from any discussion of funding in cash terms, it’s clear that current spending constitutes a real-terms cut on previous levels, as it isn’t inflation-proofed.
Does this constitute the final word on flood defence spending, then? Probably not, as Ministers have tried to deploy other forms of smoke and mirrors in the past:
- Firstly, the Government has sometimes claimed that the 15% ‘efficiency savings’ (i.e. cuts) it is forcing on the Environment Agency will equate to an extra £54m of money for flood defences over 2011-15. Whether this will genuinely materialise in the form of new defences is anyone’s guess; it will certainly mean a loss of staff and expertise.
- Secondly, since 2011, a new system of ‘partnership funding’ for flood defences has been in effect, whereby other providers – Local Authorities, local businesses (via retained business rates) and local populations are encouraged to chip in money to build flood defences. Estimates of what this partnership model has actually delivered vary widely — the Committee on Climate Change estimate perhaps £72m, whilst recently Defra have claimed double that (£148m). Very little detailed data appears to be in the public domain, so it’s difficult to check. Yet the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary have both been very clear in their statements that it is central government that has increased spending, not that external contributions have grown; so it wouldn’t be honest to rely on these external contributions as proof of increased government spending. Intriguingly, though, Paterson’s civil servants appear to be more honest than he or the Prime Minister have been; in a recent press statement on flood defence spending, a Defra spokesperson added the important caveat that “Together with contributions from other partners, this is more money than ever before.”
These figures matter; certainly they seem to matter to David Cameron and Owen Paterson, who have set such political store by them. But in the grand scheme of things, whether one government spends more than the last lot is irrelevant if they haven’t spent what’s necessary. And to protect the country against increasing flood risk as a result of climate change requires rising investment. In 2009, the Environment Agency calculated that we need to be spending £20m more (using 2010-11 as the baseline and on top of inflation), each and every year out to 2035, just to keep pace with climate change. And by that measure – the measure that truly matters – David Cameron’s government isn’t even treading water.