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A flooded house in Ironbridge
Getty/Christopher Furlong

UK flooding – why years of austerity have left communities defenceless

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A decade of cuts to our flood and coastal defences means the government is going to have to spend more now to clean up its own mess.

Communities across the country have been left reeling from weeks of heavy rainfall and surging flood waters.

Some towns and villages have been so badly hit that the head of the Environment Agency has suggested they may have to be abandoned in the future .

The government claims to have the crisis under control, but ministers have some serious questions to answer about how prepared it was for this disaster.

Questions like did the government invest sufficiently in flood defences in the years leading up to these floods? And is it ready to cope if, as expected, global heating continues to cause extreme weather events in the years to come?

The evidence suggests that a decade of austerity has taken its toll on both our flood defences and on organisations that are best equipped to tackle flooding, such as the Environment Agency.

Austerity has left communities defenceless – and it means the government is going to have to spend more now to clean up its own mess.

Ministers talk a good game on tackling climate change, but if we’re to avoid more flooding disasters they need to start investing in strategic flood defences fit for the future.

Lowest flood spending in five years

In 2018/19 the government spent £792.4 million on ‘flood defences and coastal erosion’. That's a tiny percentage of overall government spending – in fact, it's less than 0.1% of the £811.4 billion of public sector income over the same period.

In any case, you can't accurately assess such spending using cash figures. Instead, we must adjust that spending for inflation and consider how much of the country’s overall wealth (GDP) it accounts for.

The following graph does just that, with real terms spending on flood defences shown in orange and its share of GDP in purple.

Spending on floods and coastal erosion, 2005-2019
Spending on floods and coastal erosion, 2005-2019

As we can see, current spending on flood defences of 0.037% of GDP in 2018/19 is the lowest for five years – the lowest indeed since 2014/15 (0.043%), which was previously the worst year for flooding.

Over the same period public infrastructure spending as a whole rose from 1.9% to 2.0% of GDP (on the ‘public sector net investment’ measure).

So spending on flooding has dropped down the government’s list of priorities.

A failure of policy and planning

The last time we had serious flooding across the country in 2015, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady called for “a consistent approach to spending on flood defences, especially if flooding is to become more likely in the future”. Sadly, this appeal fell on deaf ears.

We also called for the government to stop cutting staff at the Environment Agency, but there are approximately 2,300 fewer staff working at the agency today than there were in 2013 (numbers have dropped from 13,000 to 10,700).

It’s hard to think of a better example of how austerity has failed the British people.

Rather than spend proactively to protect the public, years of cuts by ministers who refused to take a strategic approach to investment in flood defences directly contributed to the devastation we’ve witnessed over the past weeks.

The public sector will now have to pick up the bill for repairs to roads, railways and bridges, while private insurers face a hefty hit and economic activity will be way down in the worst-affected areas.

Austerity is a false economy

When all is said and done, the government will have pay out more to help the communities affected by the recent floods than it would have cost to invest properly in flood defences in the first place.

That’s why austerity is a false economy. And once again, it’s hardworking people who have paid the price.

The biggest danger now is that ministers don’t take the climate crisis seriously and hold back on the infrastructure spending that communities up and down the country desperately need.

We’re calling for an additional £75 billion in spending over the next three years on top of the new spending promised in the Conservative manifesto.

We know that protecting communities from flooding doesn’t come cheap, but underinvesting again will cost us all a lot more. The time for action is now.

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