It's not every night you get lectured at by the Secretary of State for the Environment. But that's what happened to me last night, at an RSA event on the relationship between the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) and civil society.
I raised the point that flood defence spending has been cut under this Government, and I asked the Minister, Owen Paterson, whether it was his intention for civil society to take on the task of building defences where Defra had vacated. After all, there are 5 million homes at flood risk in the UK, and the risks are worsening with climate change.
The latter part of my question went unanswered. But Mr Paterson decided to launch an extraordinary tirade at the assertion I had made about the cuts to spending on flood defences.
"We have not cut the floods budget," Mr Paterson asserted; "In fact, we will be spending more over the course of this spending round than under any preceding Government." At which point, I began to shake my head, knowing this not to be the case.
"Don't shake your head! That's the facts," the Secretary of State retorted. "I'm afraid you can't shake your head, I'm giving you facts. If we're going to have a dialogue, I'm giving you a fact, you look me in the eye, you look at the records, you've got to respect that I'm giving you the truth."
Well, I’ve examined Mr Paterson’s 'facts'. And they do not bear out his statement. And what's more, his department is spending far less on flood defences than it needs to, if we're to defend the country from the worst excesses of climate change. Not, of course, that Mr Paterson is too bothered by climate change.
As a House of Commons Library briefing from earlier this year states unequivocally, "Central Government spending on flood defences will reduce in real terms over the spending review period." The current spending round referred to by Owen Paterson covers the financial years 2011-2014; and, as the graph below shows, there was a significant cut in Government spending on flood defences as a result of George Osborne's spending review in Autumn 2010.
Over the four years in question - and factoring in a small additional pot of money announced by the Coalition in late 2012 - spending on flood defences totals £2,134million. Over the preceding four financial years, the previous Government committed £98m more to flood defences: £2,232million. The Committee on Climate Change calculates that the Coalition's cuts represent a 20% reduction in real terms compared to the previous four years, because of inflation. Now, it may be that Mr Paterson is performing a sleight of hand in his assertion, given that technically the previous spending round lasted only three years, not four (after Gordon Brown's final spending review in 2007). But this would be comparing apples with oranges, a 'truth' not worthy of our respect.
Besides, whether one party spends more than the preceding lot is not really that important when it comes to flood defences: what matters is whether the expenditure is actually adequate to defend the British public from floods. On this, too, the Coalition falls short. In 2008, the Government's Foresight programme estimated that flood defence spending would need to increase by £10m-£30m per year, year-on-year, in order to keep pace with increased flood risk from climate change and maintain existing levels of protection. The Environment Agency echoed these estimates in 2009. Taking these recommendations, and using 2010/11 as the baseline, the graph below shows what the Coalition should have been spending on flood defences, and how far it has fallen short. I calculate that the underspend now amounts to around £580 million. Can you see now why I was shaking my head, Mr Paterson?
Lastly, the Secretary of State may object that he is seeking other sources of funding to pay for flood defences, rather than central government stumping up the cash. Indeed, Defra has hoped to get local government and private bodies contributing more to meet the shortfall, under new 'partnership funding arrangements'. But there is no guarantee these will deliver the goods. As the House of Commons Library states:
"It appears as though local contributions will not meet the shortfall in the short term. The Environment Agency estimated that the new partnership arrangements will deliver £70.6 million to 2014-15. This means that, even with local flood levies, overall spending on flood defences will probably be lower than the previous spending review period."
So, I’d welcome a real dialogue with Mr Paterson so he can again look me in the eye and tell me this isn't the truth. While he appears to not give two hoots about climate change, he is head of the department responsible for protecting Britain against its impacts, not least devastating flooding. He is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. And the facts are that his department is spending less money on flood defences than the previous government - and far less than they ought to be as climate change makes flooding ever-worse.