Flooding: documents reveal UK Government's spin on protection cuts
Leaked draft communications strategy includes comments from the Environment Agency challenging funding claims.
The Government's drive to spin its cuts to flood protection funding has been revealed in a leaked communications strategy from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), seen by the Guardian.
In comments on the draft document, the Environment Agency (EA), responsible for delivering flood defences, repeatedly challenges funding claims made by Defra and warns of "own goals".
The document also warns of the "risk" that "the media make a link between climate change [and] the risk of flooding and whether the government is doing enough to prepare". Under environment secretary, Owen Paterson, funding for adapting to global warming was cut by 40%.
The draft strategy, prepared at the end of 2013 before the floods that devastated large areas of England and Wales, also anticipates the prolonged flooding of the type seen on the Somerset Levels.
"The Tory-led government is far more interested in spin than dealing with the increasingly serious threat of extreme weather caused by climate change," said the shadow environment secretary, Maria Eagle. "The truth is that the prime minister has been caught out over his decision to cut vital flood spending, his environment secretary ignores the impacts of climate change and they don't have a coherent strategy to deal with flooding in the future."
A spokesman for Defra said: "This is a draft document that had not been seen by senior officials or ministers. We are spending £3.2bn over the course of this parliament on flood management and protection from coastal erosion. That is more than ever before."
Flood protection rose sharply under the last government following the major 2007 floods. But annual funding fell by 25% in the coalition's first year and remained below 2010 levels, leaving hundreds of schemes unbuilt, until emergency repair funds were given after the winter floods.
The government's own scientific advisers warn that global warming is leading to more floods in the UK and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) states that Defra would need to spend an extra £500m a year just to maintain flood risk across the country at previous levels. A new report from the CCC on Wednesday is expected to criticise ministers again over flood defence spending.
The EA's challenges to statements in the draft communications strategy included warnings that "this needs to be accurate". The EA contradicted Defra funding claims, stating: "We spent more money in the year before the election than we do now" and "we took a 27% reduction in capital [spending] that recent announcements have not yet restored".
The EA also advised caution about a plan to highlight newly funded defence schemes: "The number of new starts to be announced in February will be very small as most of the money is committed to in-going projects. Will be an own goal if not handled carefully."
The document identifies "risks" of bad publicity, including "because the flood defence maintenance budget had reduced, there is a risk that news outlets will claim that the government is spending less on flood defences than previously". It also identifies "threats", stating that the "risk that watercourses will be overcome and flood parts of the countryside for prolonged periods of time could lead to criticisms that the government is not managing watercourses effectively or giving sufficient powers to local communities to enable them to do so."
The flooding of the Somerset Levels for months led to heavy criticism over the lack of dredging of the local rivers and restrictions on what local farmers were allowed to do.
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said the government should put its efforts into defending homes from flooding rather than defending itself from bad publicity.
"This is vindication for everyone who pointed out that the government has slashed flood defence spending and neglected to prepare for climate change, needlessly jeopardising thousands of people's homes," he said. "We need an environment department that takes preparing for climate change seriously, and an environment secretary who accepts the scientific evidence that shows climate change is man-made."
In June, the outgoing chair of the Environment Agency told the Guardian that slashed flood defence budgets have left the nation at the mercy of the wilder weather that climate change is bringing. Lord Chris Smith said reduced funds and rising risks were an "inconvenient truth". Also in June, the environment, food and rural affairs select committee of MPs warned that "overall funding does not reflect the increased flood risk" being driven by climate change.