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Lack of local authority resources a barrier to flood management

Words: Laura Edgar
Flooding / iStock-470833555

‘Scarce’ local authority resources coupled with ‘low levels’ of private sector investment are preventing the effective management of flooding, especially given the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is one of the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) conclusions in its report Managing Flood Risks.

Local flood risks are managed by unitary authorities or county councils, whose funding for which is not ring-fenced.

The committee notes that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) understands that local authorities spend more on managing flood risks than they are allocated through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) local government funding formula.

It also knows that it needs a better understanding of why spending varies so much from one local authority to the next and whether the formula for allocating local authority funding accurately reflects its level of flood risk.

The report highlights that the partnership funding model has been successful in attracting additional investment to flood defence projects, but the level of private sector contributions fell to just 7 per cent between April 2015 and March 2021. This is a decline of 25 per cent between April 2011 and March 2015.

The committee recommends that Defra and the Environment Agency should identify areas where there is likely to be a shortfall in local authority resources and private sector contributions to ensure the effective management of flood risk in local areas. Both departments should report to the committee with their assessment by July 2021.

Although the government’’s policy is not to build on flood plains “unless unavoidable”, the Environment Agency thinks there could be an increase of up to 50 per cent in the number of houses built on such land over the next 50 years.

The committee recommends that planning policy guidance notes should be strengthened to avoid new-builds in areas prone to flooding “wherever possible”.

Defra should also report to the committee by July 2021 on the outcome of its discussions to date with MHCLG on reforms to the planning system and how this will mitigate the risks of building on flood plains and other flood-risk areas, such as those at risk from surface water flooding. This should consider approaches to ensure that developers guarantee that property can be insured and contributes to flood mitigation measures.

For the committee, neither Defra nor the Environment Agency “understand enough about the significant decline in the proportion of flood investment going to deprived areas since 2014, or about the wide variation in the level of flood defence investment per property at risk across regions”.

While the Environment Agency is on target to achieve its goal to better protect 300,000 homes through its capital investment programme, Defra needs to recognise that building flood plains and increased vulnerability to existing properties from the climate crisis means the net number of homes that are better protected is actually lower.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Damaging floods are becoming more and more frequent and with climate change extreme flooding events are not going to just go away. With public finances stretched to the limit, government and the Environment Agency have to do more to make sure limited funds for flood defence and risk management are spent effectively. The risks to our homes, businesses, national infrastructure, food supply and whole ecosystems are not even being properly monitored, much less strategically mitigated.

“You can see the next major housing and building regulations scandal brewing here – the government is simply not doing enough to protect the UK’s current housing stock from floods or stepping in to prevent new homes being built on flood plains, and more needs to be done to tackle the prohibitive home insurance costs that result.”

Other conclusions and recommendations in the report include:

  • Defra is not doing enough to challenge the Environment Agency’s performance and hold it to account. It should immediately strengthen its scrutiny of the Environment Agency so that its new approach is in place for the new investment period starting in April 2021 and should report to [the committee] by July 2021 on how the new scrutiny arrangements are operating.
  • In 2014 the National Audit Office (NAO) report on strategic flood management found there was a profusion of plans that often duplicate across geographical or administrative areas. Defra and the Environment Agency have not followed the NAO recommendation to review their strategies and plans with a view to rationalise them to reduce the burden on communities and to promote public engagement. Therefore, Defra should write to the committee within six months with an update on the opportunities to streamline local planning and with a timeline for implementation of any reforms.
  • The current indicators used to monitor national flood risk do not cover important elements such as risks to agricultural land, business premises and infrastructure. Defra’s new set of national flood-risk indicators should incorporate all types of flood risk to ensure they provide a full picture of what is happening to flood risk including for homes, non-residential property, agricultural land, and infrastructure across England and should facilitate the comparison of flood risk across previous years so progress can be clearly assessed.
  • Defra has not ensured that all regions, deprived areas in particular, get a fair share of the available funding. It and the Environment Agency should undertake and publish annual analysis of investment levels across regions and deprived areas. This should be followed up by appropriate action to reduce any funding inequality. Annual analysis and reporting should start at the end of the first year of the next investment period (March 2022).

Managing Flood Risk can be found on the UK Parliament website.

Image credit | iStock