Prime Minister Nero: David Cameron Fiddles as Britain Floods

29/12/2015 12:29 | Updated 29 December 2015

It's on David Cameron's watch that funding for flood defences have been cut. It's on his watch that flood defences that might have saved 2,000 homes and 400 businesses in Leeds were axed. Planned defences for hard-hit York were put on hold under the Prime Minister's previous government.

And it's on his watch that nearly 10,000 new homes have been built each year on flood plains, putting lives at risk, and threatening misery and financial disaster for thousands of households.

It's no wonder that in June, the independent Committee on Climate Change, in its official report, said that the government's worst failing was failure to deal with extreme flood risk, with the recommendation that it "develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk". Failure to spend £500million would cost £3billion, it said. Yet the government rejected the recommendation for action.

It is the Prime Minister who bears ultimate responsibility for the lack of action on flood defences. And a lot of the criticism in recent days has understandably focused on that immediate example of inaction.

Yet the scale of Prime Minister Cameron's responsibility for the lack of action extends far beyond that.

The residents of Cockermouth in Cumbria are testament to the fact that even near-new defences, put up after recent flooding, were no match for the force of one of this winter's storms.

We are now living in a world that's one degree warmer than pre-industrial levels - and that warming is going to, the experts tell us - as do our own eyes - mean more extreme weather, happening more often.

We've now have an El Nino weather event, an increasingly understood natural cycle that produces wild weather, droughts and floods.

But this is an extreme El Nino - unlike any before in its intensity. And that's the result of climate change.

We'll see more like this.

That means far bigger changes in the way we live, the way we manage land, the way we manage water, the way we build and repair houses.

Around Britain, we're seeing some exciting local initiatives, some innovative schemes, some local government and institutions that have grasped that change has to come.

In Gloucestershire, a Rural Sustainable Drainage Scheme has utilised simple, low-cost measures to reduce the rate of floods travelling downstream.

In London, where an area the size of Hyde Park is concreted over every year, Islington Council was an innovator in demanding Sustainable Urban Drainage for housing schemes.

In Cornwall, the Upstream Thinking project has focused on water quality improvements through land management, but also reduced flood risk.

But these are fragmentary and small-scale - no criticism of their innovative, brave and determined proponents - but a huge criticism of the government's failure to understand that we will get more extreme rainfall, that we're often through even current actions increasing the risk not just to property but even life through our actions (such as building on flood plains).

We need a serious, coordinated national plan that considers how we can, in the words of a slogan I heard regularly on a recent visit to the Somerset Levels, a hugely vulnerable area, "slow the flow" of extreme, "unprecedented" rainfall.

The jargon is "total catchment management" - thinking about how landuse can be adapted to protect everyone. Water needs to be held on land for as long as possible, flooding peaks smoothed, flash floods avoided. Land needs to be kept absorbent, not concreted over.

One key proponent of a critical measure in this - tree planting - has been the Guardian columnist George Monbiot. But he's been a lone if powerful voice that David Cameron's governments have chosen to ignore.

On Prime Minister Cameron's watch we're seen no national plan for changes in land management.

And then there's the even broader picture - Britain's contribution to climate change - the very events we're now experiencing. As the nation that industrialised first, we have the highest cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases of any nation. That gives us a special responsibility to act, yet a leaked letter last month saw Amber Rudd admitting that Britain is set to fall far short - 25% short - of 2020 renewable energy targets.

And this is Prime Minister Cameron's even broader failure. He's presided over two governments that have put Britain back at the back of the pack on building a low-carbon future - action that's also cost many tens of thousands of potential jobs, pulled the rug out from under small green businesses and community energy projects across the country.

When it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate change on Britain, and doing our share in meeting the target for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC above the pre-Industrial Revolution level, Prime Minister Cameron has been the modern equivalent of the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.