The Ebbs and Flows of Flood Politics

Unprecedented flooding across the UK raises questions over the North / South divide and government inaction

It hasn’t been a merry Christmas for everyone this year. Residents across the North, Scotland and Northern Ireland have suffered unprecedented flooding over the last month and will be hoping the new year brings them better fortune.

Flooding in Great Britain this year has been of extraordinary scale, with cities, towns and villages dealing with a barrage of assaults from Desmond, Eva and Frank respectively. With a haphazard flood governance structure, the rising costs of clean up and political performance at odds with Powerhouse policy – the government seems quite adrift itself.

Unable to go with the flow
The governance of flooding is confusing. Different bodies are responsible dependent on the source of the flooding (from a large river, a small river, groundwater or heavy rain) and dependent on the flood location (for roads – it’s the Highway Agency, for a main river – the Environment Agency, for a town centre – the local authority).

Local authorities across the UK have been largely successful in helping their communities prepare for floods. For example, many have established local flood action groups of volunteer wardens who provide early warning alerts to vulnerable people in their communities. The Local Government Information Unit runs the Local Government Flood Forum and its members are pushing for greater devolution of responsibility and resources for flooding to local authorities.

However, although several local authorities have asked for flood management budgets to be devolved from the Environment Agency to them, so far, it hasn’t happened. The people most capable of delivering effective flood prevention strategies are not being permitted to.

Cost of inaction
The Committee on Climate Change, in their June report, advised the government to develop a strategy that would address the increasing number of homes at risk from flooding. However, the government took no action on the guidance, reportedly deciding that it would not be appropriate at the time. This happened mere weeks before the Cumbria floods.

“Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for, it will be spent” – David Cameron, February 2014, after Somerset flooding

In the wake of the UK floods, the government has once again declared ‘money no object’ in the clean-up. However, the cost of picking up the pieces is rising as flooding becomes more extreme with KPMG estimating costs topping £5 billion, a price tag unlike any before it. For a government set on economic pragmatism and financial stability, does their flooding policy make fiscal sense?

Dampening the Northern Powerhouse
The anger in the North is palpable. An editorial in Yorkshire Evening Post declared that flooding of this scale in London and the South East would be “unthinkable” and the leader of the Leeds City Council stated that the Northern flooding was an entirely “preventable disaster”. Northerners feel deserted.

“The North didn’t get anywhere near the support that we saw going into Somerset” – Judith Blake, Leeds City council leader

Much has been made this year of the Northern Powerhouse with announcements from the government on devolved decision making, investment in transport and the establishment of enterprise and innovation hubs across the North. Conservatives have seemed driven to spread southern wealth and strengthen their northern vote.

However, this is at odds with our current system of flood funding. Cameron strenuously denied a North / South divide in terms of flood funding – the formula, he argued, leaves Northerners with more investment per head. Quite apart from the simple fact that less people live in the North, the flood infrastructure funding he refers to is only a small part of the cost of flood defences. The rest comes from other infrastructure funds, businesses, local donations and council reserves with London, for example, having access to the Mayoral Fund. Adding in these other sources reveals the North / South split quite clearly.

The government can invest in the North until they’re blue in the face, but it’s no good to anyone if their Powerhouse is underwater.