In Depth

557 job cuts in flood protection: bad timing for Owen Paterson

As Cobra meets to discuss flooding, Environment Secretary is left in deep water by predecessor

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ENVIRONMENT Secretary Owen Paterson is under pressure to reverse cuts in the budget of the Environment Agency which coordinates action against flooding as Britain faces a perfect storm of torrential rain, high winds and high tides threatening the worst flooding in years.

The Environment Agency is planning to cut 1,600 staff by October – 557 of whom are directly involved in flood risk management, according to figures obtained by The ENDS Report, an environmental policy magazine.

The cuts come despite the Environment Agency's chief executive, Paul Leinster, admitting in an interview with the magazine: “This is going to be painful. This is going to be a significant change for us. This could hit our morale; it could hit our performance.”

Paterson chaired yesterday's meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee, to coordinate the response to the storms, and another Cobra meeting is expected today.

He has been keen to show that the government is doing all it can to prepare for the storms, especially since David Cameron suffered the embarrassment of being berated by an angry householder, Erica Olivares, for the lack of action over Christmas power cuts when he visited flooded Yalding in Kent last week.

The spectacle of the PM being given a verbal ear-bashing looked like a scene from The Thick of It and had echoes of an incident when Tony Blair was tackled during a hospital visit about the lack of care for a cancer patient. Prime ministers have a tendency to demand action after such humiliation in front of the cameras.

While Paterson tries to show he's got a grip, Whitehall insiders blame the cuts on his predecessor, Caroline Spelman, who was sacked by Cameron in a Cabinet reshuffle in 2012.

On coming into office at Defra (the Department for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs), as part of the coalition’s austerity measures she accepted budget cuts of up to 29 per cent, from £2.3bn in 2010 to £1.8bn in 2014-15 – the third highest reduction in percentage terms of any government department.

This included a cut in capital spending, mostly on flood defences, from £600m in 2010 to £400m each year.

So far, the apocalyptic flooding that was feared today with a surge in the high spring tide at 7.06 am has not materialised, but worse is expected on Sunday when Britain will be hit by a storm that has been causing snow across the eastern seaboard of America.

Paterson can play pass the parcel with the blame, but those flooded this weekend will be demanding more answers when MPs return to Parliament next week from their New Year break. And it will be Paterson – not Spelman - who will be on the spot.

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