A top-down centralised decision-making process and government functions working in silos are not new features of UK politics, writes Dr Daniel Fitzpatrick. But as communities across the UK experience misery due to flooding, it seems these deeply entrenched pathologies of policymaking are increasingly out of step with the ‘wicked’ issues that society is facing.
The Cabinet is apparently ‘at war’ over water. Over the weekend, communities secretary, Eric Pickles, and environment secretary, Owen Paterson, became embroiled in a public spat over the response of the Environment Agency (EA) to the floods in the south of England.
In the media this has been portrayed according to the usual intra-party politicking, as two Coalition ministers jostle to gain political capital out of the crisis. However, political posturing aside, the infighting and discord between departments and their executive agencies reveals some deeper pathologies of UK politics and policymaking.
The flooding crisis has shown that despite the repeated attempts to ‘modernise’ Whitehall, UK central government remains conditioned by a top-down approach to policy and a culture of departmentalism that continues to shape the patterns of behaviour and incentives for ministers and civil servants.
Given its inherently dynamic and unpredictable nature, water is a complex resource that presents a number of management and policy challenges. There is an enduring ‘misfit‘ between institutional and political jurisdictions on the one hand and the boundaries of hydrological systems on the other.
The lack of synergy between administrative structures and the boundaries of the watershed has often been cited by both academics and practitioners as a problem for water resource management. As part of its broader localism agenda, the Coalition has been keen to support, in rhetorical terms at least, efforts by Defra and the EA to foster more bottom-up and integrated solutions to the problems of flood management and water quality.
Taking its lead from the European Water Framework Directive, the Catchment Based Approach, launched in 2011, speaks to many of the decentralising themes – such as community resilience, transparency, and post-bureaucracy – cherished by those at the heart of the Coalition.
However, despite the Coalition’s efforts to shift the blame for the floods on to the ‘quangocrats’ in the Environment Agency, it is clear that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet still feel the need to maintain the facade of control in the midst of a crisis. For all the talk of empowering communities to use local resources and knowledge to help themselves during an emergency, in an actual crisis such as the one in Somerset Levels all risks are recentralised and repoliticised.
The ‘blame game’ tactics of the weekend were a diversion designed to create the political space in which David Cameron could ride back into Westminster as the man-of-the-hour, chairing Cobra meetings and visiting flood-stricken communities in the South-west. The ingrained top-down nature of UK politics has been brought into sharp relief by the flooding crisis.
In the absence of drainage and water management expertise in local authorities and of anything resembling a meaningful regional layer of governance, the policy focus is exclusively national. The need to maintain the facade of central control in the face of public pressure for action has some adverse consequences; namely the denigration of the policy debate into asinine statements about whether ‘to dredge or not dredge’ despite a consensus among water management experts that dredging in the flood-hit areas would have had little to no impact.
Moreover, the success of bottom-up approaches to strengthen community resilience is likely to be stymied by a more fundamental ‘misfit’ at the heart of government. It is widely accepted that humans have a profound impact on the land on which we live, travel and work.
These activities – and how we use, manage and change the land to suit them – affect hydrology in a number of important respects. The notion that land use and water resources are inextricably linked is therefore relatively uncontentious. Despite the weight of scientific evidence and the intuitive appeal of integrating policy on land use and water resource management, there remains a disjuncture between the two government departments responsible for these respective areas of policy.
One the one hand, you have the Department for Local Communities and Government (DCLG) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on the other. A lack of ‘joined-up government’ is manifested in the clear conflict between the former, which is focused on ‘streamlining’ the planning process in an effort to stimulate economic recovery through a rejuvenation of the construction industry, and the latter tasked with devising and implementing ‘holistic solutions’ for a myriad of complex and overlapping environmental and climatic issues and problems.
The admission by Eric Pickles that “We made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that, we perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice” was deeply ironic given his department’s strategy of non-engagement with any voices that dissent from the deregulatory mantra of the National Planning Framework.
Under the auspices of the wider Red Tape Challenge across government DCLG has lobbied hard on behalf the construction industry to reduce the number of rules and standards that apply to house building from 100 to just 10.
The Housing Standards Review by DCLG recommended the abolition of the Planning and Energy Act 2008 and ‘winding down’ the role of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH). This includes removing the discretion of local authorities to decide whether make new developments subject to particular criteria voluntary or compulsory depending on local conditions.
In evidence submitted to the Environmental Audit Committee, the Building Research Establishment, which manages the CSH under contract from DCLG, commented the review did not allow ‘true consultation on issues that matter’. Key sustainability criteria, including surface water runoff and flooding, are omitted or barely mentioned by the review.
So when Pickles states that “We made a mistake …”, he means Defra. The dumbing-down of the debate on the flood risk management to a binary choice of ‘to dredge or not to dredge’ is also a strategic device to locate the issue of flooding firmly in the category of ‘environmental’ problem for river management rather than taking a broader focus on the whole catchment that cuts across a number of government departments, including DCLG.
Water resource management, which involves issues of water quality as well as quantity, is a ‘wicked issue’ that requires integrated, joined-up thinking and solutions. The rhetoric of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) is promoted with vigour by the government at both the local and catchment level. However, the government fails in quite spectacular fashion to follow its own advice at the national level.
Of course, top-down centralised decision-making and a ‘silo-isation’ of government functions are not new features of UK politics. However, these deeply entrenched pathologies of policy-making in the UK are increasingly out of step with the ‘wicked’ issues that society will need to face in the 21st century.
With evidence suggesting that increasingly intense rainfall is linked to ongoing climate change the future for flood-risk communities such as those in the Somerset Levels look bleak. If wicked issues such as flooding are to be addressed in the long-term, the disjointed and dysfunctional nature of policy making needs to overhauled: if not we will be forever caught in a vicious cycle of a platitudinous government desperate to maintain the façade of taking strong decisive action in times of crisis, which then subsequently retreats from view under the guise of community resilience.