MPs have demanded to know how budget cuts to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are going to affect its ability to do its duties, including responding to emergencies such as flooding.
In a new report, the environment committee says that although Defra is one of the smallest of government departments, it has faced among the most severe cuts to funding, and is set to lose even more between now and 2016.
The MPs especially question the wisdom of cutting 1,700 Environment Agency jobs over the next 12 months, amid the worst spate of flooding to hit the UK for decades.
In November, a leaked internal Environment Agency memo, seen by the ENDS Report, revealed that 557 of the employees who will be let go work specifically on flooding.
“Recent flooding events over the Christmas and new year period reinforce the committee’s concerns about cuts to the Defra budget and how these will be realised”, said Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, who is chair of the committee.
Prime minister David Cameron has insisted that Defra still has the ability to fund flood defences, claiming that his government will have spent more on defences between 2011 and 2015 than Labour did between 2006 and 2010.
Critics have disputed these claims however, with environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth pointing out that the coalition’s budget for flood defences is not inflation-proofed, amounting to a real-terms cut.
“The prime minister’s calculations are far from watertight. Government figures show the coalition is spending less on flood defences in the current four-year period than it did in the previous four”, said Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole.
“Worse still, the coalition’s chronic under-investment in flood defences is completely failing to keep pace with climate change, which is increasing flood risk – as the government’s climate envoy Sir David King recently pointed out.”
Defra’s other responsibilities include responding to crises such as the recent horsemeat scandal, and the ash dieback disease, which threatens Britain’s woodlands.
The MPs demand that Defra’s ability to handle such occurrences is protected, while McIntosh calls on Owen Paterson, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, to be clearer on where exactly the axe will fall.
Among the department’s other challenges in the next 12 months is the implementation of the new Common Agricultural Policy, debating whether GM technology should be used in food production, and pushing forward its proposals for “biodiversity offsetting.”
Biodiversity offsetting is a strategy which would allow developers to destroy green land in development projects, if they agree to compensate for the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats by creating new habitats elsewhere.
The proposals have been widely criticised by environmentalists, and in the new report the MPs deal another blow, arguing that the controversial strategy should not be put into practice until the results of the pilots have been independently assessed.
“The jury is still out on biodiversity offsetting so ideology must not trump the robust scientific appraisal of sufficient evidence gathered during a pilot designed to test the efficacy of this policy,” McIntosh adds.
This comes as a survey of employees reveals a growing lack of confidence in the leadership of the department. Only 22% of workers said they believe that the Defra Management Committee has a clear vision for the future – 18% less than the Civil Service average.