We don’t know if there’s a north/south divide in flood defence spending because the data was taken offline

15 November 2019
What was claimed

Government spending on flood defences until 2021 has heavily favoured London and the South East.

Our verdict

There isn’t enough data available to prove this, and previous estimates don’t clearly show this divide. Figures from the Environment Agency that could have helped shed light seem to have been taken offline.

“The government’s planned spending on flood defences until 2021 also heavily favours London and the south-east of England.”

Labour party, 9 November 2019

In the midst of the floods that have hit parts of northern England and the Midlands, Labour has revived a question that’s been asked several times in recent years: is there a north/south divide in spending on flood protection?

But in spite of the significance of this question during an election campaign, there isn’t nearly enough data available to answer this question, and figures from the Environment Agency that could have helped shed light seem to have been taken offline at some point in the last two years.   

We asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency three days ago to provide this historical data on spending, which previous analyses had access to, but they have so far not done so.   

One of the most comprehensive analyses done in recent years was by research site Carbon Brief in 2017, which analysed data from the Environment Agency (when it was still available) on flood protection funding by local area across England. Its analysis showed constituencies in London and the South East made up 60% of the government’s planned funding on flood defences, despite making up 32% of England’s population.

But those figures are skewed because of the different timescales some programmes are funded on. Somenotably those on the Thames estuary in Londonare ongoing programmes that are scheduled to continue well into the future. Others were scheduled to be completed by 2020/21—the end of the current programme of investment by the Environment Agency. That has the effect of making it look like some areas are getting more money simply because their funding stretches over a much longer period of time.

Looking just at the spending up to 2021, Carbon Brief found more funding per person going to Yorkshire than any other region.

There are two drawbacks with applying these figures to the present day debate. 

One minor point is that the figures are now dated. They will still reflect projects completed and underway by 2017, and planned projects for future years as they stood in 2017. But we don’t know how much project spending plans or amounts have changed since then.

Secondly, and more significantly, looking at spending “per person” isn’t necessarily the best measure here, as not everyone in England is at equal risk of flooding. For example, Carbon Brief’s data shows that large sums were allocated to constituencies containing the Thames Barrier, while some parts of the Midlands received no funding.

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Data on flood defence spending has got worse in recent years

The Environment Agency currently publishes figures for capital investment on flood protection (so not including maintenance spending) by local area in England from 2019/20 to 2020/21. But less data is available than there used to be.  

Carbon Brief used the same source of data for its analysis from 2017, but back then there seemed to have been more historical data available.

As they stand, these figures can’t tell us anything useful about regional investment spending. These show spending on individual projects, which will come and go across the country over a matter of years and won’t always reflect the bulk of investment going into an area.

Looking at one or two years of spending does not give a clear picture of what’s going on with flood defence spending overall.

Investment spending is “lumpy over time”, as different schemes are built in different years, according to Daniel Johns, then-head of adaptation at the independent Committee on Climate Change, speaking to the BBC’s More or Less  in 2016. “Taking a snapshot in time and trying to look just at the capital investment programme rather than the total flood defence budget doesn’t give you a true sense of the North-South divide”.   

The Labour Party also offered a specific view earlier this week:

“According to analysis by Labour, Tory spending on flood defences overwhelmingly favours the South East… with Environment Agency spending falling 15 per cent in the North West, 14 per cent in Yorkshire and 3 per cent in the East Midlands between 2016 and 2018. Over the same period, the South East has seen a rise in spending of 14.5 per cent.”

We’ve asked Labour for the source of its figures but have yet to receive a reply. 

One possibility is data from the Treasury which breaks down identifiable spending by the Environment Agency on flood spending by UK region. This gives a broad picture of flood protection spending but doesn’t include all sources of funding, so can’t give a complete picture. We haven’t been able to replicate Labour’s figures, which in any case will only give a two-year snapshot of funding.

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