Leading article

Britain needs small government, not weak government. That means strong flood defences

The need for cuts shouldn't let those in power wriggle out of their unglamorous responsibilities

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

There is nothing inevitable about the by now familiar sight of residents being towed away from flooded homes, of shops and businesses submerged, and all the misery and economic turmoil which follows. A short hop across the North Sea is a country which has been having much the same weather as we have recently and has even more low-lying land vulnerable to flooding. Yet there has been a remarkable lack of footage of Dutch homeowners being forced to gather their possessions and flee their homes. Why?

After a devastating storm surge in 1953, the Dutch made huge investments in engineering their land to prevent flooding. Vast dykes have been constructed, beaches regularly recharged with sand and shingle. Water management is carefully built into every development. Sea defences are of a standard required to protect against the kind of flooding event which might be expected once every 10,000 years; river defences to a one in 1,250-year standard. Britain can only dream of such protection: here, the corresponding figures are one in 200 and one in 100 years.

We did spend money on flood defences in the wake of the 1953 North Sea floods, culminating in the completion of the Thames Barrier in 1982. Then something went terribly wrong. As Christopher Booker explains on pages 14 and 15, rather than preparing for floods, government policy began to revolve around trying to will them away. Countless millions have been spent trying to avert climate change — a fool’s errand, driven by blind ideology rather than a level-headed approach to make a difference. Yet precious little has been spent on trying to build resilience to the increased rainfall and rising sea levels of which ministers endlessly forewarn.

It is as well that David Cameron this week declared that ‘money is no object’ in recovering from the floods. Until now his government, like its Labour predecessor, has spent grudgingly on flood defence. The blame does not only lie with the Environment Agency: George Osborne cut the flood defence budget when he became Chancellor, condemning 294 schemes which had already been planned. It is now just one quarter of the amount spent in England on subsidising green energy.

A defeatist attitude prevails:  the Environ-ment Agency is always talking about retreating and abandoning land to the water — even though those landscapes have been successfully drained for centuries. The problem is partly to do with metropolitan fantasies about the sanctity of Mother Nature, but it is also a question of finance. It was Gordon Brown who decided to halve infrastructure spending, in the hope of protecting the voter-sensitive departments like schools and the NHS. This was short-term saving but long-term folly. It made it more likely that incredibly expensive disasters would strike further down the line. It is to Osborne’s discredit that he did not reverse Brown’s decision.

This magazine is in favour of a small state, not of a weak state. There are certain things which by their very nature must be organised on a collective basis. A sea wall is only as good as its weakest link. We cannot entrust flood defences to individual property owners any more than we can trust the military defence of the country to citizens with their own weapons.

These are both core activities of a proper functioning state, and yet both have been scaled back so that tax revenues might instead be fed to the voracious beast of social and cultural programmes: things with which governments have only relatively recently become involved.

It is a similar story with sanitation. For more than a century, emptying the bins was accepted as a core function of public authorities.  Now they try to wriggle out of it, reducing the frequency of collections and trying to levy spurious charges on householders who produce what officials consider to be excess waste — even though, of course, one of the whole purposes of the rates, the forerunner of council tax, was to fund waste disposal. Mending the roads, too, used to be an accepted duty of public authorities, but has since been downgraded as councils find what they regard as more exciting ways to spend our money, leaving a trail of potholes the length and breadth of the land.

We will have learned nothing from the floods if their legacy is not a better focus by government on what should be core activities: overseeing the provision of essential public services. That’s not to say that all of these should be in public hands: many, such as telephone services and parcel deliveries, are now more efficient because private companies have been involved. But where competition is impossible, flood defence being a prime example, we need strong public authorities.

The Environment Agency is not such an authority. It is a hotpotch of competences, driven by personal agendas and environmental ideology. Unlike the sea wall at Dawlish in Devon, it does not deserve to be shored up. Rather, it should be dismantled and replaced with a flood defence agency whose staff are under no illusion as to their task: to protect people and property from inundation by river and sea. And yes, this is one public service which deserves a lot more cash.

A transfer of some of the money being frittered on wind farms and solar parks would be a good start.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • drydamol1


    Forget something none of us know about ‘Politics’ they are
    woffle to confuse the issue ,just concentrate on basic logic .Stand back as an
    outsider rather be in the middle of the situation .Why should a collective of
    poorer people pay Billions to a Company that
    as we see it incompetent – RBS
    and others have been bailed out by £332.4 Billion since 2007.If we fail at our
    job we are sacked not given a rise and Knighted .

    Western Governments are Money Collectors for a Central Money
    Hub .Governments are the middle men who collect all the Money in and deduct
    Expenses ,such as our Public Services – that’s why Public Services are being
    cut , Benefits being slashed beyond recognition and any other ‘outgoing payments’ .More Privatisation is the Key word
    so we end up paying instead of the “State subsidising us” Now they want to
    scrap Maternity Leave and Privatise Old Age Pensions .The Office for Budget
    Responsibilities make Forecasts for Cameron and Osborne to follow ,that’s where
    they get “Immigration is Good” for the Country
    -it means Cheaper Labour .

    Why can Bankers print worthless paper money(there is no gold
    or silver to back it up ) and charge interest on it ,they are earing money from
    worthless paper so why cannot Governments do the same and the Public have
    Interest Free Loans – its our money after all .No chance they would not be
    allowed .The BoE a Private Bank would put the dampener on that .


  • teledaft

    Sanity at last,very good article.

  • AnotherDave

    “This magazine is in favour of a small state”

    Really? That’s not the impression I get.