Floods reveal the state of the nation

“Sometimes an event is not just an event, it is an X-ray of the political and psychological condition of a nation,” says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. The recent floods and gales are a case in point.

Opposition politicians call them an “ecological wake-up call” for a government “apparently insouciant” about climate change and say David Cameron needs to “take charge”. But the truth is, we aren’t used to extreme weather.

The storms are a reminder that there is a limit to what the state can do, “but no limit on our expectations” – and that applies to all the big issues of the day, from wage stagnation to immigration, Europe and globalisation.

Actually, the government, and previous ones, are at fault, says Richard Ashley in The Independent on Sunday. The current situation is the result of a “systemic failure” of our politicians and policymakers to take a long-term, strategic approach to environmental hazards.

Ashley was involved in two reports, the Foresight Future Flooding study of 2000 and another in 2007, which covered how flood risks would change up to the 2080s and what might be done to cope with a changing climate. The reports predicted “precisely what is coming to pass”.

Part of the problem is that many in government “either don’t believe, or don’t wish to upset those who don’t believe” that the climate is changing. It’s time Treasury funding rules and government priorities changed: £32bn diverted from HS2 would provide a lot of flood defences.

Huge investments in sea and river defences after a storm surge in 1953 are the reason why the Dutch haven’t been forced to flee from their homes in recent weeks, says The Spectator.

Sea defences there are of a standard required to protect against a once-in-every-10,000-years flood event; river defences are built to a one-in-1,250-year standard. In Britain, the corresponding figures are one in 200 and one in 100 years.

After the completion of the Thames Barrier in 1982, policy shifted from preparing for floods to trying to “will them away” with millions spent trying to avert climate change.

Gordon Brown halved infrastructure spending to protect “voter-sensitive departments” such as the NHS and George Osborne has cut the flood defence budget. Even those in favour of a small state recognise that there are certain things – the military, flood defences, road repair – that have to be organised on a collective basis.

The Environment Agency should be replaced with a properly funded flood-defence agency. A transfer of cash being “frittered” on windfarms and solar parks would be a good start.

It’s a “no-brainer”, agrees Andrew Lilico in The Daily Telegraph. Three decades of “fabulously expensive” climate-change-mitigation schemes have made virtually no difference. Unlike prevention, adaptation is “feasible” and “much, much cheaper”.

  • Adrian Shiner

    The climate has always been changing. Unfortunately politicians of all hues have abandoned logic in managing drainage and housing development on flood plains. As in business a large amount of knowledge and competence needs to be applied to investment decisions by Parliament. At present this country is ill served by its politicians.