By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics
The continued spread of flooding across south-west England this weekend, in addition to causing untold misery for tens of thousands of people, also finally provoked that most unsavoury of public bloodletting: a gloves-off fight between government ministers and the relevant arms-length agency over who is to blame for the chaos. Eric Pickles, the Local Government minister (standing in for the Environment Secretary who is on sick leave) and Lord Chris Smith, the chair of the Environment Agency (and a former Labour Environment Secretary), have in recent days taken to the airwaves to argue about who is responsible for the flooding. Pickles has blamed poor advice from the Environment Agency which shaped the government’s response. Smith has pointed to lack of funding for the Agency and Treasury rules which govern its operation. Unusually in a scenario such as this, Owen Patterson, the off-sick Environment Secretary, has let it be known that he does not agree with Pickles pronouncements regarding the Environment Agency. For some, the blame-game is high political sport.
This is just the most recent in a long list of instances which demonstrate the tremendous complexity of modern governance. When things go wrong, politicians blame those inside agencies and similar organisations for not implementing policies properly and for making mistakes, while those in the agencies blame politicians for cutting funding and failing to understand the details on the ground. And while the blame-game continues, those in the midst of the trouble, struggling with flooding, demand action to alleviate suffering and for the fault-finding to wait until later. Indeed, untangling exactly what has caused the scale of recent flooding is no mean task. Global warming? An unusually wet and stormy winter? Lack of public funds for flood defences? Failure to dredge rivers? Overpopulation on flood plains? There is no single, simple answer, and the true source will certainly turn out to be a complex mixture of these causes, and more besides. In public policy, identifying the cause of a problem is a hugely significant component of correctly identifying suitable solutions, and it’s rarely an easy exercise.
Listening to the debates surrounding the current flooding emergency demonstrates the highly technical and scientific nature of public policy making, and also just how contested it is. Evidence can be brought to bear for and against river dredging. For and against the value of allowing lands to succumb to flooding. For and against prioritising urban over rural areas. And the policy instruments which are brought to bear are consequently often highly contested and controversial. As the UK is set to experience further such weather events in the coming years, those with an interest in governance and public policy making would do well to understand this extremely technical area in terms of flood management, and explore what it tells us about the capacity of institutions of governance to respond.