Hilary Benn, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said earlier this month, “It is vital that we learn lessons now about how to manage and respond to this type of disaster in the future.”
But this is not the first time the New Labour government has promised to learn lessons. After severe flooding in 2000 the government said the devastation was “a wake up call” and Hull MP John Prescott, then the environment secretary, told parliament, “We must take practical action now.”
There have been 25 reports since then from parliamentary committees and official bodies on how to reduce risks. They have all talked about the need for funding and planning ahead to deal with floods.
But money for flood defences has been systematically cut and vital infrastructure such as transport and water maintenance have been allowed to suffer at the hands of the market.
Last year then chancellor Gordon Brown cut the Environment Agency budget by £14 million, prompting cuts in flood defence plans.
Jill Craig, head of policy at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, said that recent events had shown the government’s decision to make last year’s cuts was “incredibly short-sighted”.
The PCS civil service workers’ union has warned that current government plans to cut 550 jobs in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will further undermine the ability of the department to coordinate future flood responses.
Defra has overall responsibility for the response to the ongoing floods crisis. The government plans to follow the job cuts with a 5 percent year on year budget cut in the department until 2011.
Cuts have already meant the loss of two thirds of the regional engineers in flood management.
Last year also saw some of Defra’s flood management policy work transferred to the Environment Agency – which has also suffered severe cuts – as well as the closure of all the Defra regional offices except for York.
Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, said, “There is a real fear that cuts will hamper the ability of Defra to coordinate future responses to floods and extreme weather conditions.
“We urge Gordon Brown, as part of the promised review into the flooding crisis, to halt the cuts in Defra and ensure that department has the capacity and resources to respond to future floods.”