MPs slam Whitehall for passing buck on flooding

31 Jan 12
MPs have raised concerns about the funding of flood defences in England, casting doubts on plans to raise more money from councils.
By Richard Johnstone | 31 January 2012

MPs have raised concerns about the funding of flood defences in England, casting doubts on plans to raise more money from councils.

In Flood risk management in England, the Public Accounts Committee says more than 5 million homes in England are in danger of flooding. It warns that there is ‘a great deal of uncertainty’ about whether there will be enough money to improve the protection from growing risks, including climate change.

Environment Agency funding for flood risk management, currently over £630m, is being cut by 10% between this year and 2014/15, the MPs note. This is despite a 2009 projection that the budget would have to increase by 9% in the same four years to sustain current levels of protection.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which funds the agency, plans to secure more money from local sources, including councils. It wants local flood protection funding to increase from £13m to £43m by 2014/15.

But the PAC says these plans ‘may well be over-optimistic’ at a time when councils face budget cuts.

This would leave a ‘big mismatch’ between what needs to be spent and the available budget, but the department could not tell MPs how big the gap would be.

With the current £1.1bn annual cost of flood damage set to grow, the MPs say, there is ‘no clarity about where the buck stops’ for ensuring protection. The committee is ‘very concerned’ that Defra will not accept ultimate responsibility for managing the risk of floods, instead insisting that it shares responsibility with the Environment Agency and councils.

Each local authority in England is producing a risk assessment and a flood management strategy, but the MPs warn that such localism should not mean Defra is not part of decisions made on defences. It needs to be ready to intervene if local risk management plans are inadequate.

PAC chair Margaret Hodge said: ‘The department tells us that it is not ultimately answerable and shares the responsibility with the Environment Agency and local bodies. But the department has no way of knowing whether local flood management systems are adequate or when it should step in. It is not acceptable that local people should be left in doubt about where responsibility and accountability lie.’

Responding to the report, a Defra spokeswoman said that Sir Michael Pitt’s 2007 review of flood defences recommended local rather than national oversight of councils’ flood strategies.

She added: 'As the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 clarified, local authorities are accountable for local flood risk management and should be the first port of call for communities affected by flooding.’

An Environment Agency statement said that it was always seeking to improve the way it manages the risk of flooding across the country.

‘In recent years we have been developing our work with local communities at risk of flooding, helping them to understand their flood risk and be prepared for flooding. This work is being extended as we discuss with them how we can work together to agree the best option for local flood and coastal risk schemes,’ it said.


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