Many of Britain’s flood defences are being abandoned or maintained to minimal levels because of government cuts that could leave almost twice as many households at “significant risk” within 20 years, according to a leaked document submitted to ministers.
The paper, written by the body representing all major organisations responsible for flood defences, was presented to ministers on 30 November last year – days before Cumbria was hit by the heaviest rainfall recorded in 24 hours in Britain.
It was then discussed by floods minister Rory Stewart and Oliver Letwin, the cabinet office minister leading the government’s flooding review.
The leaked document says: “We have had the five wettest years since 2000. The Environment Agency’s funding for maintaining flood assets has fallen by 14%. Downward adjustments have also been made to intended revenue spending commitments.”
It adds: “Failure of assets and networks is more likely as extreme weather events become more frequent and unpredictable. We must change our approach to managing water level management assets and systems … adopting a more long-term approach.”
Referring to the threat to more households as a result of cuts, the experts say: “Annual flood and storm damage costs are approximately £1.1bn, according to the Association of British Insurers, and those households at significant risk [of flood damage] through a reduction in our capacity to manage water levels could increase from 330,000 today to 570,000 in 2035.” Furthermore, a 10-60% increase in extreme rainfall could lead to a quadrupling of flooding in urban areas.
Written by the Association of Drainage Authorities (ADA), whose members include the Environment Agency, it is further proof that ministers were being told before last month’s floods that cuts had left large parts of Britain in greater danger. The experts called for a complete rethink of the way flood defences were maintained and funded.
After much of the north of England and Scotland endured misery over Christmas, ministers had admitted that flood defences were inadequate in many areas, but insisted that extreme weather was to blame, not government cuts. But the experts challenge this view, saying savage reductions to local authority funding had not only had a devastating effect on flood defences but may have added to costs in the long run because the result had been a far faster deterioration than would otherwise have occurred.
Councils had suffered budget cuts of more than 40% since 2010, leaving them with little or no option but to reduce or withhold funding to drainage boards, other organisations and landowners who managed river levels, the document suggests. “Such reductions in investment mean that some river, watercourse and sea defence systems and structures are maintained only to a minimal level; consequently the useful lives of those assets will be reduced,” says the paper. It points out that the Environment Agency has had to reduce maintenance or even stop operating some flood defences in Cumbria and Lancashire.
“The rivers and coasts of some rural areas are at a major crossroads and their funding is purely based on the benefits of flood risk to people and property as calculated currently. The Environment Agency has … reduced the extent of their watercourse channel maintenance and taken steps to stop operating a number of structures and systems. Examples include lowland catchments across Lancashire and Cumbria.”
The association, whose membership includes many local authorities and internal drainage boards, echoes the views of MPs on the Commons environmental audit committee who warned last March that reducing money for maintaining flood defences would be “a false economy”.
On Sunday David Cameron will announce a new £40m package of funding to rebuild and improve flood defences in the aftermath of Storm Eva.
He will pledge to support charities helping those caught up in the deluges by matching every pound of the first £2m raised. The package will be extended with grants to reimburse fire and rescue authorities that have incurred excessive costs protecting flooded communities. £10m of the new funding package will be spent on improving the Foss barrier protecting York, while £30m will be spent repairing defences on the rivers Wharfe, Calder, Aire, Ouse and Derwent.
The flooding response in Yorkshire will be overseen by transport minister Robert Goodwill, who has been appointed by the prime minister as flooding envoy to the county.
On Saturday dozens of flood warnings and alerts remained in place across England, Wales and Scotland. Amber warnings for rain, meaning the public should “be prepared”, were issued for parts of eastern Scotland until Monday. The Met Office has also issued yellow “be aware” warnings for parts of Northern Ireland, south Wales and south-west England for the weekend.
Janet Looker, leader of the Labour group on York city council, called for an inquiry into whether the city flooded last week because a barrier designed to hold back the Ouse was opened after the control room flooded. “We must ask what was the maintenance routine? If you don’t maintain and invest sufficiently in plant maintenance, then things go wrong. This is twice in 20 years that we have almost topped the defences. These were meant to be once in 100 year floods.”
According to Innes Thomson, chief executive of the ADA and a former Environment Agency engineer, strict Treasury rules which govern day-to-day flood-defence spending need to be relaxed. “We have a relatively good plan for capital spending. But we are desperately lacking long term-thinking on maintenance. It is the day-to-day stuff that is going wrong. Certain assets [like pumping stations] are not in good condition. Sometimes it’s very difficult to justify [investments] because of the current narrow guidelines. The EA is bound by rules set for them by Defra and the Treasury,” he said.
He called for money to be diverted from capital projects. “If we were to spend more money just maintaining and managing water levels, it would be money well spent,” he said. “All sorts of work needs to be done. We have £22bn of flood-risk assets, but [we need to ask] have we got the right standard? Are they in good condition? Should we upgrade our pumps? Do we need to ensure all our embankments are sound? Now is an opportunity to reconsider where we spend our money.”