MPs warn on floods defence cash
Maintaining flood protection for communities should take priority over cost-cutting, to prevent a repeat of the devastation caused by the winter floods, MPs have warned.
Funding for clearing rivers, routine dredging and maintaining existing flood defences is at a "bare minimum", the Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee said in a report on the floods.
While the committee commended the relief effort for the floods, which saw 7,000 properties flooded as the UK was hit by repeated storms and the wettest winter on record, they said investment in flood prevention was preferable to spending on clean-up.
They welcomed the £270 million extra funding for tackling flooding that has been announced by the Government this year, but said £130 million of that had been reallocated from elsewhere in the Environment Department's budget, rather than being additional.
And overall funding did not reflect the increased flood risk the country faced. Funding for maintenance work - a "Cinderella" area - needs to keep pace with the growing risk caused by more frequent extreme weather events and to look after an increasing number of flood defences being built, the MPs said.
They urged the Environment Department (Defra) to draw up fully-funded plans to address the current backlog of maintenance work, including routine dredging, as well as to maintain the growing numbers of man-made flood defences.
And they sought assurances from Defra that no frontline flood roles will be lost from the Environment Agency, which is responsible for tackling flooding, as hundreds of jobs are shed.
The Committee's chairwoman Anne McIntosh said: "We have repeatedly called on the Government to increase revenue funding so that necessary dredging and watercourse maintenance can be carried out to minimise flood risk, yet funding for maintenance remains at a bare minimum.
"Ministers must take action now to avoid a repeat of the devastation caused by the winter floods.
"The Government needs to recognise the importance of regular maintenance work and put it on an equal footing with building new defences."
The Efra committee said that when there were cuts to overall funding for maintenance - such as the reduction from £170 million in 2012/2013 to £147 million in 2013/2014 - measures such as clearing rivers and dredging were "the bit that gets squeezed".
The Environment Agency faced heavy criticism from locals when the Somerset Levels and Moors flooded over winter for failing to maintain routine dredging operations on rivers in the region.
Dredging began on the River Parrett in Somerset in March, where significant silt had built up, with extra money provided by the Government.
Dredging could be beneficial in certain circumstances, and as part of a portfolio of measures, but should not be seen as an all-purpose solution, the MPs said.
Where it can help, it needs to be carried out routinely to sustain the benefits, rather than neglecting it until a one-off costly capital investment is needed, they urged.
The Government should also rethink its policy for allocating funding for flood risk management to take into account the value of agricultural land, some 49,000 hectares (120,000 acres) of which flooded in just a week in February , the report urged.
Maintenance activities should be handed over to internal drainage boards and local landowners where possible and the Government must tackle the confusion over the Environment Agency's responsibility for maintaining water courses.
The MPs said that the Environment Agency was set to lose 750 jobs between January and October 2014 as a result of reductions in funding from Defra, a figure lower than the reported 1,700 jobs as a result of the injection of money from the Government.
They called for assurances from Defra that none of the job losses will be from frontline flood risk management roles.
And there should be greater flexibility over whether funding is for capital expenditure on new flood defences or "revenue" for maintenance to meet local needs, the report from the MPs said.
"The avoidance of flood events that devastate communities should, as far as is possible, take priority over cost-cutting," the report urged.
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "In February David Cameron said 'money was no object' when it came to flood defence funding, yet today the select committee says that the funding the Government describe as additional is actually only reallocated. David Cameron's 'promise' has, predictably, proved totally false."
And she said the Government "failed to prepare for the floods, they don't take the threat of climate change seriously, and they don't have a coherent strategy to deal with the problem in the future".
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said the Government's figures showed climate change could put an extra million people at significant risk of floods by the 2020s, but Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was shirking his responsibility and focusing on "spinning" flood defence spending figures.
"A responsible government would pull out all the stops to protect households, by investing properly in new flood defences and maintenance - Owen Paterson's failure to do this means he should go," he said.
Matthew Lay, national officer of Unison, said the workforce of the Environment Agency had been slashed by 25% in the past four years which was bound to impact on its work.
"The agency was already exposed during the floods, having to bring in the army, and it will become less resilient and able to respond to the next crisis," he told the Press Association.
Floods Minister Dan Rogerson said: "To ensure we build a more resilient country for the future we are tackling flooding on three levels: an unprecedented six year commitment to record levels of investment right up until 2021, giving local communities and Internal Drainage Boards as much power as possible to decide how flood risk is managed in their area and unlocking an increase in partnership funding to help more flood defence schemes go ahead."
An Environment Agency spokesman said: "We review our maintenance programme to make sure we spend taxpayers' money where it is most effective and are working with Defra on several pilot projects aimed at making it easier for farmers and landowners to undertake watercourse maintenance."