Call for flood protection spending

Published: Wednesday 5th November 2014 by The News Editor

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Current spending on flood protection is not enough to maintain defences, increasing the risk of flooding in many areas, the National Audit Office said.

Half of the flood defences – some 1,356 schemes – looked after by the Environment Agency in England are only being maintained to a “minimal level” because they deliver lower benefits than other assets, for example because they protect few homes.

As a result they are likely to deteriorate more quickly, increasing flood risk and requiring more expensive emergency solutions, a report from the National Audit Office said.

But the Environment Agency has not informed communities about the future risk of flooding in their local area as a result of lower maintenance.

The Government made an extra £270 million available following the winter storms last year, which saw widespread flooding during the wettest winter on record, including an additional £35 million in each of the next two years for maintaining defences.

But while the additional money restored funding for maintaining defences to 2010-11 levels in cash terms, in real terms – adjusted for inflation – it was a 6% decrease in spending for maintenance since the coalition took power, the NAO report said.

Without the extra cash from the Government following the winter floods, total funding for flood protection has declined by 10% since 2010.

The Environment Agency has improved efficiency, b ut the increased risk of extreme weather events similar to the storms last winter as a result of climate change means current budgets will be under pressure, the NAO said.

The winter storms flooded 7,700 homes and 3,200 commercial properties, as well as cutting off power to hundreds of thousands more households and flooding 49,000 hectares of agricultural land, with areas such as the Somerset Levels particularly badly hit.

Around one in six homes in England is at risk of flooding from coastal, river and surface water, and the Environment Agency has previously warned it needs an extra £20 million a year to keep up with the increased risk of flooding in the face of climate change.

Responding to the report, chairwoman of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge, said: ” I am deeply concerned that current levels of spending are not enough to maintain flood protection, with five million homes at risk of flooding and people’s livelihoods in jeopardy.

“It is alarming that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has cut spending on flood protection by 10% between 2011-12 and 2014-15 and it had to react with an emergency bailout of £270 million following the winter floods in 2013.

“Surely this short-term reactive approach is not value for money in the long-term.”

She added: ” It is extraordinary that after cutting maintenance for half of its flood protection assets to the bare minimum, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not let communities know their local risk of flooding.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “Against a background of tight resources, the (Environment) Agency has improved how it prioritises its spending, including on the maintenance of flood defences. On this measure the Agency is achieving value for money.

“However, if we set aside the emergency spending in response to last year’s floods, and give due credit for efficiency improvements, the underlying spending on flood defences has gone down.

“The Agency, as it recognises, will need to make difficult decisions about whether to continue maintaining assets in some areas or let them lapse, increasing in future both the risk of floods and the potential need for more expensive ad-hoc emergency solutions.

“The achievement of value for money in the long term remains significantly uncertain.”

The parliamentary environment, food and rural affairs committee has previously urged the Government to prioritise maintaining flood defences over spending cuts to prevent a repeat of the devastation caused by the winter floods.

Public and Commercial Services union’s Mark Serwotka said: “This once again exposes the lie that the Government can slash spending without affecting how public services are delivered.

“In the case of flood defences, cutting funding and resources can have devastating consequences for families and communities.”

But Flooding Minister Dan Rogerson said: ‪”The NAO has drawn conclusions on funding based on inappropriate comparisons.

“We have invested £3.2 billion in flood management and defences over the course of this parliament which is a real term increase and half a billion more than in the previous parliament.

“This has allowed us to protect 165,000 families and households in vulnerable areas.”

‪”Not only are we spending more than ever before, but we are also ensuring that our investment strategy will deliver long-term value for money.

“Next month, we will set out the first ever six-year programme with record levels of investment, which will protect another 300,000 homes by the end of the decade.”

The £3.2 billion spent in this parliament includes extra money announced following flooding and spending for 2010/2011 in the first year of the coalition which was set out by the previous government.

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: “The NAO’s findings are a damning indictment of Government neglect. The coalition is letting flood defences crumble as sea levels rise and extreme weather worsens.

“Failure to tackle climate change carries a huge cost, as the devastating floods that battered Britain last winter showed.”

He called for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement next month to set out measures to defend Britain from climate change – by plugging the £500 million gap between what the Government’s climate advisers say is needed for flood defence spending and what is being spent and by slashing carbon emissions.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “This report recognises that our ongoing investment in flood risk management delivers good value for money.

“We are on track to reduce flood risk to 165,000 properties between 2011 and 2015 and we will continue to invest in those activities that contribute most to reduce the risk of flooding per pound of funding we receive.

“Following the 2013 spending review we have a long-term, six-year capital settlement to continue to improve flood risk management infrastructure.

“This will allow us to make record levels of investment in capital projects and with this investment we aim to reduce flood risk to a further 300,000 properties.”

Published: Wednesday 5th November 2014 by The News Editor

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