Rory Stewart defends Government flood defence spending
Environment Minister Rory Stewart has defended the Government's record on flood defence spending, following a succession of reports claiming that many of Britain's flood-risk households have suffered from insufficient protection.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) representative told MPs at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) meeting on Wednesday (13 April) that flood defence funding had increased in real terms over the past five years, and “will continue to do so”.
Stewart rejected claims that the recently announced increased expenditure figure of £700m was inadequate, in the light of a Government-commissioned report which unsuccessfully advised it not to let investment on flood defences to drop below the 2014-15 level of £810m.
The Floods Minister hinted that future Government policy will look to move the country towards a catchment-based approach, with new spending used to fund “more imaginative” initiatives such as planting trees and protecting big businesses and mobile phone networks.
A “difficult but correct political decision” had been taken by the Government not to spend the extra funding in accordance with a “clear, rational, economic, transparent” cost-benefit formula which puts “most of its weight on protection of houses”, Stewart said.
He added: “This Government decided that we needed an additional injection in order to provide the resources for more innovative approaches both to natural flood management and to a national resilience review, particularly looking at some of our critical infrastructure.
“The additional funding could potentially be used in a more imaginative way, to look at things which aren’t captured by the formula - which could be vulnerable communities, critical national infrastructure, or natural flood alleviation schemes.
“Calculations could be made around social justice, or we could decide that vulnerable and more deprived communities might need more investment, including calls for particular regions.”
Stewart’s comments come after the Government was urged by an industry-led report to initiate a national debate on the priorities of future capital expenditure for flood defence.
The report, by the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), called for a Government environmental “policy reboot”. Other proposals include the introduction of an easily-understood flood-risk scale as well as reform of the new ‘Flood Re’ insurance programme, to ensure policy holders are rewarded for improving their defences by reducing premiums.
EIC’s executive director Matthew Farrow said: “Flood policy needs a reboot, otherwise we will continue to see so-called one-in-a-100 year floods causing untold damage and misery every few years.
"We need some specific changes, such as extending FloodRe protection to small businesses, and making the Repair and Renew Grant a permanent scheme that incentivises home-owners in at-risk areas to invest in property-level protection. But we also need to rethink our approach to flood risk more widely.
"How can we make better use of 'big data' to identify and anticipate flood risk and potential flood damage? And should the economic value of areas be the main criteria for prioritising flood defences?”
Last month’s Budget 2016 announced an additional boost to spending on flood defence and resilience of over £700m by 2020-21, in the wake of last December’s national flooding. Stewart told the EAC he remained confident that the additional expenditure would reach the anticipated 300,000 flood-risk properties.
In related news this week, it has been revealed that a £500,000 tree-planting project helped to prevent flooding in a North Yorkshire town last winter. The Slowing the Flow scheme, which saw 40,000 trees planted, reduced peak river flow in Pickering by 20%, after 50mm of rain fell in 36 hours. The scheme could prove to be a model example of future flood prevention, if a decision is made to implement Stewart’s “more imaginative” approach to the allocation of flood defence spending.