“We protected flood defences because that is important.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 17 November 2010
Today the UK’s flood defences faced a serious test as more than 100 homes were evacuated in Cornwall following heavy rains. It is little wonder, then, that the subject of funding flood defences in the age of austerity reared its head at Prime Minister’s Questions.
In the very last question of the session, former Labour frontbencher Ben Bradshaw challenged the Prime Minister about the “false economy of his recent decision to slash investment in flood defences”.
“That is simply not the case,” Cameron replied. “The fact is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be spending over £2.1 billion on flood and coastal erosion risk management over the next four years; that is roughly the same as what was spent over the past four years.
“We made some difficult choices in the spending round, but we protected flood defences because that is important.”
But are his numbers watertight?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was one of the biggest losers of the Spending Review, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, facing cuts of £30.9m. Yet the Spending Review heralded a commitment to “continued investment in flood and coastal erosion risk management, with £2 billion being spent in total over the Spending Review period” – just short of what Mr Cameron told MPs today.
Defra confirmed last week that spending would be £2.1bn over the next four years last week, backing up the Prime Minister.
However, his assertion that this is “protecting” the budget is less assured. A spokesperson told FactCheck today that for the four years from 2011/12 spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management will be around £540million per year.
Under Labour, according to Defra, it was £590m a year for the last four years – or a total of £2.36bn. So spending of £2.1bn over the next four years on flood defences will be a cut of 11 per cent compared to the last four years.
There have also been savings this year. Defra is spending £664m on flood risk management in 2010/11 – which they say is still a record level of spending. Of that, £629m is a grant to the Environment Agency which, Defra’s own website says, includes a “£30 million saving as part of the deficit reduction”.
Defra added: “In the settlement coupled with efficiencies in flood procurement, we are prioritising spending to provide increased protection from flooding to an additional 145,000 homes by 2015. We will also protect front-line services like flood forecasting and warning and incident response, and the maintenance of existing flood defences.”
But Ben Bradshaw is in good company when he says these savings are a false economy. The Institute of Civil Engineers voiced their concern after the Spending Review, pointing out that “According to the Environment Agency, for every pound spent on flood defences we save eight in the future in terms of reduced damage.”
Whichever way you look at this one, it seems Mr Cameron was wrong to say spending on flood defences was “protected”. Yes, they have committed to spending around £2bn over the next four years. But overall that’s an 11 per cent cut to Defra’s budget for flood defences compared to the last four years.
Update, 18 November 2010: Downing Street insisted today that the prime minister’s comments to the Commons on floods were “accurate” and that spending over the next four years was “broadly the same” as the previous four years. The prime minister’s official spokesman added that other departments were making far bigger cuts.