Flood defence funding 'is priority'

Updated: 

Flood Control, Sandbags. Sandbags stacked in a doorway to prevent flooding.

Maintaining flood protection for communities should take priority over cost-cutting, to prevent a repeat of the devastation caused by the winter floods, MPs have warned.

Funding for clearing rivers, routine dredging and maintaining existing flood defences is at a "bare minimum", the Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee said in a report on the floods.

While the committee commended the relief effort for the floods, which saw 7,000 properties flooded as the UK was hit by repeated storms and the wettest winter on record, they said investment in flood prevention was preferable to spending on clean-up.

They welcomed the £270 million additional and reallocated funding for tackling flooding that has been announced by the Government this year, but said overall funding did not reflect the increased flood risk the country faced.

Funding for maintenance work - a "Cinderella" area - needs to keep pace with the growing risk caused by more frequent extreme weather events and to look after an increasing number of flood defences being built, the MPs said.

They urged the Environment Department (Defra) to draw up fully-funded plans to address the current backlog of maintenance work, including routine dredging, as well as to maintain the growing numbers of man-made flood defences.

And they sought assurances from Defra that no frontline flood roles will be lost from the Environment Agency, which is responsible for tackling flooding, as hundreds of jobs are shed.

The Committee's chairwoman Anne McIntosh said: "We have repeatedly called on the Government to increase revenue funding so that necessary dredging and watercourse maintenance can be carried out to minimise flood risk, yet funding for maintenance funding remains at a bare minimum.

"Ministers must take action now to avoid a repeat of the devastation caused by the winter floods."

"Regular work to dredge and keep rivers clear can be an essential flood prevention measure, yet this is exactly what gets squeezed out when budgets are tight. The Government needs to recognise the importance of regular maintenance work and put it on an equal footing with building new defences."

The Efra committee said that when there were cuts to overall funding for maintenance - such as the reduction from £170 million in 2012/2013 to £147 million in 2013/2014 - measures such as clearing rivers and dredging were "the bit that gets squeezed".

The Environment Agency faced heavy criticism from locals when the Somerset Levels and Moors flooded over winter for failing to maintain routine dredging operations on rivers in the region.
Dredging began on the River Parrett in Somerset in March, where significant silt had built up, with
extra money provided by the Government.

Dredging could be beneficial in certain circumstances, and as part of a portfolio of measures, but should not be seen as an all-purpose solution, the MPs said.

Where it can help, it needs to be carried out routinely to sustain the benefits, rather than neglecting it until a one-off costly capital investment is needed, they urged. The MPs also said low priority areas such as farmland were sacrificed in favour of urban, highly populated areas.

Around 49,000 hectares (120,000 acres) of agricultural land were flooded in just one week in February, they said, warning that current funding priorities failed to recognise the importance and value of farmland.

The Government should rethink its policy for allocating funding for flood risk management to take into account the value of agriculture, the report urged.

Maintenance activities should be handed over to internal drainage boards and local landowners where possible and the Government must tackle the confusion over the Environment Agency's responsibility for maintaining water courses.

The MPs said that the Environment Agency was set to lose 750 jobs between January and October 2014 as a result of reductions in funding from Defra, a figure lower than the reported 1,700 jobs as a result of the injection of money from the Government in response to the floods. They called for assurances from Defra that none of the job losses will be from frontline flood risk management roles.

And there should be greater flexibility over whether funding is for capital expenditure on new flood defences or "revenue" for maintenance to meet local needs, the report from the MPs said.

"Overall, Defra needs to recognise the importance of regular and sustained maintenance work in the prevention and management of flood risk and take steps to reflect the equal importance of maintenance alongside capital. The avoidance of flood events that devastate communities should, as far as is possible, take priority over cost-cutting," the report urged.

Ms McIntosh said there needed to be a "holistic" approach to flood defence spending, with a focus on total expenditure instead of a split between capital and revenue or maintenance funding, which lacked transparency.

And she said: "Every level needs to be considered, the physical flood defences, which we're not able to afford very many, the working with nature, natural flood defence schemes, and the regular maintenance."

She pointed to her constituency, of Thirsk and Malton, where natural flood defence measures were being implemented by planting trees, felling trees to create small dams and restoring peatland, to store water that would otherwise flood lower areas.

She added that regular maintenance work saved money.

The Government announced an extra £130 million for flooding in February and a further £140 million in the Budget in March, but the committee said the £130 million was "reallocated" from elsewhere in Defra's budget rather than additional funding, as it had been described.

Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "In February David Cameron said 'money was no object' when it came to flood defence funding, yet today the select committee says that the funding the Government describe as additional is actually only reallocated. David Cameron's 'promise' has, predictably, proved totally false.

"The Tory-led Government's response to the winter floods was slow and chaotic. Ministers cut the funding Labour provided in government and the select committee says they are now unable to deal with the long-term flood risk.

"They failed to prepare for the floods, they don't take the threat of climate change seriously, and they don't have a coherent strategy to deal with the problem in the future."

Responding to the winter floods report, Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: "Prevention is far better than cure - the most effective way we can prevent flooding getting worse is to stop burning the coal, oil and gas that's driving climate change, and causing the unusual weather incidents that are becoming more common.

"The Government's own figures show that climate change could put a million more people at significant flood risk by the 2020s, but Owen Paterson is trying to shirk this responsibility and instead seems to be focusing his energies into spinning flood defence budget figures.

"A responsible government would pull out all the stops to protect households, by investing properly in
new flood defences and maintenance - Owen Paterson's failure to do this means he should go."

Matthew Lay, national officer of Unison, said the workforce of the Environment Agency had been slashed by 25% in the past four years which was bound to impact on its work.

The agency's legal department had been affected by staffing cuts, leaving it less likely that polluters will be prosecuted, he said. "The agency's workload has been increasing because of climate change and industrialisation, but it is having to manage with 3,000 fewer workers.

"The agency was already exposed during the floods, having to bring in the army, and it will become less resilient and able to respond to the next crisis," he told the Press Association.

Places at most risk of flooding in Britain

Places at most risk of flooding in Britain