The Royal Institute of British Architects recently predicted that climate change could transform Hull into the ‘Venice of the North’. Attractive as that may sound, I doubt residents in Elmbridge would welcome such a fate. The cold snap has focused minds on the contingency planning required, if climate change results in severe weather extremes. Given the proximity of homes to the River Mole and the Thames, in particular, flood defences are vital. In recent weeks, I have discussed contingency planning with councillors and the Environmental Agency, and visited local areas at risk (see photo below). The stark reality is sobering.
According to the Environment Agency, as of August 2008, there were almost 33,000 properties – mostly homes – at risk in Flood Warning Areas clustered mainly around the River Mole and the Thames. The Lower Thames region – from Datchet to Teddington – is one of the most vulnerable to flooding in Britain. In partnership with local councils, the Environment Agency has prepared for some of the most serious contingencies, including renovating a flood wall in Walton, and consulting on the Lower Thames Flood Risk Management Strategy.
Given the risk of severe weather conditions in the future and the clean up costs – the Environment Agency estimates that £1 spent on defences saves £7 in damage – this is welcome. The planning is not perfect. There are practical concerns over the flood diversion channels envisaged. Equally, even the Environment Agency recognise that the Lower Thames Strategy would still leave over 5,000 homes at risk. But the real problem will be delivery. The Environment Agency’s (national) Long Term Investment Strategy requires an increase in annual funding from £570 million to over £1 billion by 2035.
The bottom line is that we face a growing long-term risk of flooding, around half the resources necessary to meet it – and a particularly severe local risk in Elmbridge and the wider area. The Conservatives have recognised the ongoing need for investment in flood defences, despite the severe restraints on public spending. On 15 January, Conservative National Security Adviser, Baroness Neville Jones, launched the Party’s Green Paper, A Resilient Nation, addressing threats to national security – from terrorist attacks to severe flooding. But, reckless spending by this government over 13 years has made sound long-term investment in such contingency planning much more difficult that it should be.
Gordon Brown talks a good game on climate change at international summits. But, as Chancellor and Prime Minister, he squandered the public money now needed to deliver the Environment Agency’s strategy for flood defences in Elmbridge, the wider Lower Thames region and the rest of the country.
It is bad enough that the government wasted taxpayers’ money during the boom years – on ID cards, quangos and other expensive white elephants. But, with public debt now at a record levels and investment required for flood defences woefully low, this government’s reckless approach has exposed British homes to unnecessary risk – including thousands in Elmbridge.