Friday, July 06, 2007

"An incredibly foolish false economy"

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Flooding fibs

On Monday the new secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs made a statement on the floods. Hilary Benn thanked everyone he could think of – "the staff of the fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and local communities" – and said over 20,000 properties could be affected and flood-related insurance claims could run to £1bn.

What he failed to do was admit the government’s role in the floods. Last summer, Defra was forced to cut its spending by £200m because of the mess it had made of the new system of farming subsidies.

The Environment Agency in England was one of the bodies affected, losing £14.9m from its budget for flood defences. Its chief executive Dame Barbara Young said the cuts would mean delays to some projects, including mapping for floods and improving warning systems: "Everyone is very much aware that even in the middle of a drought floods are never too far away and climate change is making that worse."

Someone else who spoke up at the time was Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat shadow environment secretary. He said people in areas at risk from flooding would pay for Defra’s incompetence and called for the losses on farm subsidies to be covered from government emergency funds, not budgets for other environment work.

He told the BBC: "This is an incredibly foolish false economy when we know that storms are becoming more extreme and flood risk is increasing due to global warming."

And he was right.

Chris has developed a useful capacity to get under the skin of government ministers. On Monday he reduced the normally urbane Benn to bluster: "It is pretty churlish of him to have a go at the new Prime Minister."

But it was the new Prime Minister, when he was the old Chancellor, who insisted the farm subsidy fiasco should be paid for from within DEFRA’s own budget. So he must share the blame with Margaret Beckett, then the environment secretary.

On holiday in Norfolk I visited Happisburgh, where government seems to have given up altogether and the village is falling into the sea. If we don’t pay taxes to stop flooding, what do we pay them for?

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

This morning on R4 Today Alan Johnson claimed that the Env Agency had not taken money out of the flood prevention budget. By the end of the programme they read out an email claiming to come from an Env Agency employee and stating that indeed the budget had been cut. Last night Sir Alistair Graham was on C4 TV trying to analyse why we don't trust politicians.. He didn't really get to the heart of it.