It’s time for the environment secretary to fall on his sword

By Caroline Lucas (Politics)

Across the country, homes and businesses are being devastated by the current floods, and our hearts go out to everyone whose lives are being turned upside down. I’m sure we all welcome the prime minister’s promise earlier this week to “do everything he can” to help – not least because, to date, he has done precisely the opposite: slashing over 500 jobs at the Environment Agency, relaxing planning rules, and overseeing a 41% drop in spending on domestic climate change initiatives.

So I think it’s fair to question whether David Cameron’s pledge to “take whatever steps are necessary” relates not only to immediate and much needed flood relief, but also to the urgently needed increase in funding for flood protection, and to a commitment to take a more active role in leading Europe’s efforts to cut carbon emissions.

My attempt to ask him precisely this at prime ministers questions yesterday did not go well.  They say the truth hurts.  Perhaps that’s why my intervention was met with Tory jeers, attempting to drown out not just my demand that David Cameron reverse the cuts to the Environment Agency budget, and give proper funding for flood protection but also – crucially – that he remove anyone from his Cabinet who does not take an evidence-based approach to the increasing reality of climate change.

Environment secretary Owen Patterson should no longer be in his post.  His contempt for climate science is well known.  It is absurd to leave someone in charge of a department whose role is to protect the country from a growing climate crisis who himself believes that “people get very emotional about this subject, and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries”.  If we’re to have an integrated and credible national strategy to deal with the flooding crisis, we must start by having someone in charge who is prepared to acknowledge the reality of the growing climate threat that we face.

So here are a few of the priorities for a new environment secretary:

1 Climate proof the flooding budget

Money is no object, the prime minister said.  Yet despite the limited increase to investment in flood defences, funding from Defra will still be £1.4 billion behind what the Environment Agency says it needs between 2015 and 2021 – just to stop the flood risk getting even worse.

As well as reversing the cuts to the Environment Agency budget and investing properly in flood defences, we also need to factor in climate change projections on the future cost of extreme weather.  Because the current approach is ignoring this, the committee on climate change estimates that current spending plans would result in around 250,000 more households becoming exposed to significant risk of flooding by 2035.

In Brighton and Hove, local emergency services, utilities, the city council and other stakeholders are all working together with such determination to help residents facing significant risk of groundwater and surface water flooding. But it’s clear that the overall pot of money that local authorities have to bid into for flood protection projects is far from adequate.

It would also help if the process for applying for funds were simplified. And the government needs to review the cost-benefit ratio rule that is discouraging local councils from investing in crucial flood protection measures.   Right now projects have to deliver an eight to one return on investment (HS2, by way of comparison, only has to deliver a two to one return).  Decent investment would reduce the average rate of return but also the overall amount of flood damage.

2 Rethink the way we use our land

We need a radical rethink of land management to take proper account of climate change and reduce the threat to people’s homes and livelihoods, and to our food security.  Yet the Department for Environment recently confirmed that the rules farmers must meet to get public subsidies do not cover flood risk.  The government needs to stop this irresponsible use of public money by ensuring flood prevention is a non-negotiable condition of all farm subsidies.  Approaches to land management that help store more water in the uplands in places like peat blogs, rather than in places like people’s living rooms, are often good for improving water quality too, and have the potential to cut water bills for customers downstream.

3 Stop building on flood plains

Applications for development in areas at high risk of flooding are actually up this year – no doubt encouraged by the prime minister’s enthusiasm for slashing green regulation that stops developers building exactly what they want wherever they want, irrespective of the consequences for future residents.

In a written question this week, I asked communities secretary Eric Pickles how many times he has overturned a local authority’s decision to refuse a planning application for  housing and commercial development on a flood plain.  His unconvincing response was that “where development is necessary, it is made safe and does not increase flood risk elsewhere”.

At the very least, we need to know what’s happening.  Where a local authority approves a planning application to which the Environment Agency has objected, there is currently no requirement for this to be reported.

4 Enforce a consistent, long-term approach across government

The crisis has illustrated how vulnerable vital local and national infrastructure is – from roads to railways to power stations.  It can’t be protected on a silo basis.   We need much better co-ordination between departments, and a much longer term strategy. In Brighton and Hove, for example, plans for dealing with coastal flooding take a 100 year view of risks to the city.  We need to be taking that kind of long view nationally.  We also need to see climate change taken out of the environment box and made a top priority for all government departments.

5 Get serious on climate change

Nature is giving us a wake-up call.  December was the sixth wettest December in the UK since records began in 1910.  2012 was the UK’s second wettest year on record and cost the economy £600 million.  Parts of England have just experienced the wettest January since records began.

Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed that extreme or heavy rainfall events have become more intense as a result of climate change and explained that north and central parts of Europe are projected to get wetter, and when rain does fall, it’s likely to be in heavier bursts as temperature increases continue.

Climate proofing our infrastructure and flood protection plans will be undermined, if not rendered impossible, unless we start taking urgent action to cut carbon emissions at a radically greater scale and pace than at present.  That means ditching the tax breaks to frackers and the subsidies to big fossil fuel, investing in energy efficiency and getting  behind our  thriving home grown renewable industry.

Scientists have made clear that we need to keep around 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we’re to meet the government’s own aim of keeping climate change below the “dangerous” threshold of two degrees.

Politicians often talk solemnly about the importance of long-term decisions for our future, and that of our children.  Their response to climate change is the best test of whether they mean it.

I hope the next environment secretary is ready to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

Caroline Lucas is the former leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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