Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Somerset floods and the ideological austerity agenda

I've revisited the subject of austerity driven cuts to flood prevention schemes on several occasions before the Somerset levels flooded in the winter of 2013-14.

The main point I have raised each time is that cutting flood defence spending is about the most blatant false economy possible. For every £1 spent on flood prevention schemes, the economy saves £8 in avoided economic damage. It seems paradoxical, but if the Tory led government was actually interested in saving money, they would have increased the amount of money they spent on flood prevention rather than slashing it, as they did from 2011-12 onwards. Spending on flood prevention is one of the strongest fiscal multipliers going, yet in their ideological zeal to cut spending, the Tories simply assumed that it was "waste" and slashed away at it.

The Environment Agency estimated that the 2012 floods cost the UK economy somewhere in the region of £600 million, now the insurance industry estimates that they will have to pay out some £500 million for the Somerset floods. These costs will be passed onto the public via increased insurance premiums, damage to uninsured property and through lost trade in the flooded areas.

The fact that the Tories have now pledged to spend an additional £130 million on flood defences is just rubbing salt into the wounds of those who have been affected by the numerous floods since the Tory cuts to flood prevention spending took hold. That £130 million represents just part of the money the Tories cut from the flood prevention budget, and it's now being pledged as a purely political gesture.

Another indicator that the Tories are intent on playing politics over the floods is the steady flow of misleading claims that they have supposedly increased spending on flood defences. These claims rely on the tricks of not adjusting the figures for inflation, and including the 2010-11 flood prevention spending they inherited from the Labour government in their own figures. If the figures are adjusted for inflation, or the spending they inherited from Labour is excluded, there is no argument that they severely cut the flood prevention budget. That they insist on tinkering around with the figures in order to create the fiction that they didn't cut flood prevention spending, rather than actually focusing on the disaster at hand illustrates exactly where their priorities lie.

Aside from their statistical chicanery, the other unedifying element to the Tory reaction is their desperation to blame everyone apart from themselves, they've trotted out the ever predictable "Blame Labour" narratives, as well as blaming the Environment Agency (whose funding they cut), the EU and environmentalists.

One of the big ironies is that of the nine MPs that represent constituencies in the County of Somerset, all of them (5 Lib Dems and 4 Tories) are part of the Coalition government that slashed flood defence spending as part of their ideological austerity experiment. Given the tribalistic nature of politics in the UK it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the voters of Somerset will attempt to punish their MPs at the ballot box. It will be extremely surprising if even one of these nine constituencies returns an MP from Labour/Green/UKIP/other alternative/independent at the next election. The voters of Somerset will undoubtedly flock to the ballot boxes in order to vote for the people that ruthlessly cut flood prevention spending and then sat on their hands for weeks as the disaster unfolded.

The Somerset floods are one of the most visible demonstrations that the Tory Lib-Dem austerity experiment is a purely ideological thing. They knew that things like this would happen if they slashed flood defence spending, but they went ahead and slashed it anyway because they had to make savings on paper. New that the true costs of these "savings" are beginning to become apparent, they believe they can get away with it by blaming everyone else but themselves. The really sad thing is, that there are plenty of political tribalists that will believe their extraordinarily dodgy statistics and their "not our fault guv" narratives and wade through the floodwater to vote for them.

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