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No calm after the storm

Tony Travers
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This will need a very un-British willingness to spend money in advance of rare and unpredictable events

‘The wettest January since 1776’ has led to extensive flooding in Somerset and Worcestershire, the collapse of the main rail line at Dawlish and the gradual threat of inundation along the Thames Valley. The nature of such an environmental disaster means that government at all levels is now involved in efforts to remove the water and then clear up the mess.

There are challenges which councils cannot face alone. The damage caused by once-in-a-century storms and rainfall will rightly lead to an expectation that central government and even the armed forces will be needed to save lives and property. As conditions have worsened in western England, so calls for action have intensified.

Local government has, on this occasion, not been singled out for blame by ministers. The Environment Agency has been the object of criticism, notably by communities secretary Eric Pickles. Speaking on the BBC, he accepted the government had made mistakes, notably stating “we thought we were dealing with experts” when accepting the EA’s advice. The prime minister followed this up with only qualified support for the agency’s chairman Lord Smith.

For a time earlier this week there was a brief war of all-against-all as a number of MPs, ministers, political parties and agencies sought to blame each other for the failure to dredge rivers and strengthen sea defences. None of this finger-pointing will be of much help to people whose homes are flooded and businesses destroyed. They, understandably, want immediate assistance.

What will be required is a dispassionate look, once the floods and storms have abated, at where responsibility should in future lie for planning the protection necessary against occasional weather events. This will need a very un-British willingness to spend money in advance of rare and unpredictable events. The Treasury’s cost-benefit modelling will rarely accept the need for such investment. 

Local authorities are well placed to add sanity to this debate. They have local knowledge and expertise to assist the Environment Agency and other parts of central government to plan for the future. More money will be required, regardless of the ‘unprotected’ nature of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs budget. It would be good if council grants were not cut further to pay for this additional spending. 

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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