“This government has spent £2.4bn over this four-year period, which is more than the £2.2bn spent under the previous government.”
David Cameron, 5 February 2014
It’s the biggest question vexing the FactCheck team at the moment: will it ever stop raining?
Of course, as windswept as things are around FactCheck Towers, it’s nothing compared to the severe weather that has hit Somerset, Cornwall and many other parts of the country, leaving communities cut off by flooding for weeks.
The government’s handling of the ongoing crisis is under intense scrutiny, but ministers have consistently claimed that despite big budget cuts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the coalition is still spending more on Britain’s flood defences than Labour did.
These claims have been greeted with disbelief by Labour, environmentalists and others. Who’s right?
Last month, Defra put out updated figures for how much it spends on “flood and coastal erosion risk management”.
They make it pretty clear that overall budget allocations over the four years of the latest spending review period, from 2011/12 to 2014/15, were lower than over the previous four years.
Flood defence spending is predicted to come to £2.341bn by 2014/15. From 2007/08 to 2010/11 the total was slightly higher at £2.371.
FactCheck doesn’t take any credit for spotting this. It was first pointed out by Friends of the Earth activist Guy Shrubsole, who received a public dressing-down from Mr Paterson for his troubles (watch here from 49:30).
Despite Mr Paterson’s insistence at this public meeting that “we will be spending more in the course of this spending round than any preceding government”, the latest figures proved him wrong – a fact widely reported in the media.
That makes it all the more difficult to see why Mr Paterson and others have carried on claiming to have spent more than Labour.
On Monday the environment secretary told the Commons: “This Government will be spending £2.4 billion in the first four years of this parliament compared with £2.2 billion in the last four years of the previous Parliament.”
And prime minister’s questions today, Mr Cameron said: “This government has spent £2.4bn over this four-year period, which is more than the £2.2bn spent under the previous government.”
How can they expect to get away with saying this, when it seems to be contradicted by Defra’s own figures? Because they’ve moved the goalposts.
Note that the phrasing has changed subtly. Now we’re not talking about “this spending round” but “the first four years of this parliament”.
That means we start counting from 2010/11, arguably a slightly odd thing to do as the coalition only came to power after the beginning of that financial year and inherited spending plans set by the last government.
Presumably the government would argue that it was still in charge for most of 2010/11 and could have cut spending on floods massively, but chose to keep the budget in place.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, shifting the whole frame of reference back a year means the government can now stand up its claim to have spent more than Labour.
The flood defence total for to 2010/11 to 2012/13 comes in at almost exactly £2.4bn, more than the £2.2bn spent in the previous four years.
Defra also told us we ought to add to that £2.4bn the sum of £148m, which represents money raised from local councils and from the private sector.
Clearly this is a small sum, and in fact we know from a parliamentary answer last week that only £67.6 million of this projected £148m has actually been collected, after more than two and a half years.
The other big thing we have to take into account is inflation. All these Defra figures are in cash terms.
Some back-of-fag-packet arithmetic using the Bank of England’s online inflation calculator suggests to us that inflation all but cancels out the rise, depending on the assumptions you make, even if you start counting in 2010/11.
It’s a close-run thing. Throw in that £148m and the extra £100m announced by David Cameron today and you might just still swing things in the coalition’s favour.
Mr Cameron was undoubtedly vague in his statement to the House of Commons today. Whether this claim stands or falls all depends on what you mean by “this four-year period”.
We know that when Owen Paterson spoke about this issue in the past he specifically referred to the four years of the current spending review period, and was specifically wrong, despite the bluster (“Don’t shake your head!”).
Now the goalposts have been changed to make this line stand up.
We’ve confined ourselves to the question of whether the coalition has spent slightly more or less than Labour, but if you live near the coast you will be more interested in whether we are spending enough to contain the problem.
An independent government advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, has said we need to spend an additional £500m over four years to avoid putting more homes at significant risk of flooding.