Environment Agency calls for £200 million more for flood defence

In response to a new review published on 13 February of flood and coastal defence funding in England and Wales, launched by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Treasury, Environment Agency Chairman Sir John Harman has stated that up to £200 million more per year needs to be spent, depending on the effects of climate change.

“It is absolutely certain that more needs to be spent on flood defences,” said Harman. “The Environment Agency welcomes anything that will address the long history of underfunding and gives us more flexibility to spend when and where we need to, and in certainty that funding will be sustained over the long term so we can plan ahead, give equitable treatment to people at risk and get best value for money.”

The review suggests that there are a number of arguments in favour of the Government continuing to invest in flood defence, but funds could also be raised through a local flood plain levy and through the relatively new scheme of development charges, where the costs of flood defence for new development on flood plains are met by developers. The review also stated that the Government should not intervene to subsidise flood insurance.

Ten percent of the UK population lives in areas at risk of flooding, and following the severe weather and floods during the winter of 2000/01 there were approximately £1 billion in insurance claims, says DEFRA. It will not be possible to ensure that all properties are protected against flooding, says the department.

On the same day, the Government also launched a consultation into flood defence funding, which asks four questions:

  • Should developers wishing to build on floodplains pay a one-off charge to help fund flood defences in the area?
  • Should funding arrangements be organised by river catchment area, via new groups of local authority representatives and other stakeholders – known as Regional Customer Bodies, which could have the power to raise funds locally?
  • Should responsibility for dealing with high-floodrisk watercourses be transferred to a single co-ordinating body – the Environment Agency, rather than be shared amongst multiple agencies, as currently? and
  • Should funds for defence works be provided on a speedier block grant basis rather than on the current scheme-by-scheme basis?

“This is a unique opportunity to look at flood defence funding arrangements from first principles,” said Floods Minister Elliot Morley. “The bulk of flood defence funding will continue to come from Government but there may be scope for others to contribute, reflecting the benefit they receive. Streamlining of funding mechanisms, as recommended by a review into flood and coastal defence funding, also published on 13 February, would mean a more effective and efficient flood defence service.”

Sir John Harman states that although it is sensible for the government to consider charges for development on floodplains, the Environment Agency will continue to object to inappropriate development in flood risk areas. The government has already given firm planning guidance against development on flood plains, stated Harman, and the Agency expects to see local authorities responding robustly by ruling out development that would be at risk.

The Environment Agency has also welcomed the principle of a consultation on administrative arrangements. “The current rules are over-complex, bureaucratic and money is inflexibly ring-fenced,” said Harman. “The Agency has long been on record calling for a simpler, more streamlined system of funding that will give people at risk a clearer line of accountability, quicker response, more equitable treatment and, ultimately, greater peace of mind.”

The Agency has stated that it does not necessarily agree that common standards of defence across the country were appropriate or economic, but that the new system must provide for common standards of defence within the same community. In justifying appropriate standards of defence, the system must also allow for the human, as well as financial, impact of flooding. “The situation at Shrewsbury on the River Severn, where flood warnings are in place … , starkly illustrates the inequalities of the current rules,” explained Harman. “Purely because of economics, we could see a situation where different parts of the same community, on the same river, are protected to different levels or not at all in some cases. That kind of situation cannot be allowed to continue.”

Harman also welcomed the recommendation to consult on responsibility for watercourses, stating that the Environment Agency has already made clear its wish to take responsibility for those smaller watercourses outside its current remit that pose significant flood risks.

According to DEFRA, the Government’s commitment to flood defence has been illustrated by a new award of £6.5 million to refurbish the flood defences that serve a fishing village on the south coast of Dorset.

Responses to the consultation should be sent to DEFRA by 17 May 2002.

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