That the UK needs greater flood defences is a no-brainer. Getting a level of co-ordination between government departments and local authorities to make it happen is the challenge


The fact that, for the second time in three years, hundreds of people in the UK greeted the new year with their homes, businesses and communities ravaged by flood waters is stark evidence that the threat of severe flooding is no longer a once-in-a-generation risk. And at the same time as flooding is becoming more frequent in areas historically viewed as prone, the number of areas affected and properties deemed at risk is also rising, thanks to both changing weather patterns and a lack of adequate flood protection and prevention systems.

Parliamentary watchdog the Public Accounts Committee reported in March last year that 5 million properties in England – a total of 1 in 6 – were at risk of flooding from coastal, river and surface water. Meanwhile, a recent assessment by drainage experts warned the number of households at significant risk due to a reduction in capacity to manage water levels could increase from 330,000 today to 570,000 in 2035.

The simple and inescapable conclusion, made all the more powerful by the images of flood-hit communities in Cumbria and Lancashire over Christmas, is that the UK needs to do much more to guard against flood risk. David Rooke, the deputy chief executive of the Environment Agency, has said that the country needs a “complete rethink” of its approach to flood risk and management: a reassessment of all defences in the country, and – crucially – a much greater focus on resilience of properties so that if they are flooded, the damage is vastly reduced. A government-commissioned review of national flood resilience, launched in response to the recent flooding, will be charged with offering this rethink.

But the solutions to the problem facing the UK seem easy to identify in theory, if not to implement in practice.  Much criticism has been aimed at the level of spending on flood protection, particularly in the wake of cuts to the Environment Agency’s capital budget of around 13% between 2010 and 2013. The government has budgeted £2.3bn for work on defences between now and 2021; but the case for greater spending is underlined by the comparative cost of flooding. PWC estimates the cost of the two most recent storms is between £900m and £1.3bn.

With increased volatility of weather patterns, however, simply building more or bigger defences cannot possibly prevent every flood. So, at the same time, a much stronger focus on the resilience of properties in areas at risk is a no-brainer.

The far more thorny problem is implementing these twin initiatives – and that will come down to the level of co-ordination between government departments and local authorities.

On the funding front, even were the government to increase planned spending in the wake of recent events, its overriding aim to eliminate the UK’s budget deficit will still leave it reliant on external financing. DEFRA introduced a new partnership funding model to this end in 2011; but with only £140m raised in this way between 2011 and 2015, the Public Accounts Committee has warned that the approach to accessing this funding does not have the strategic focus to match the government’s ambition. The recession saw various forms of government intervention to make the financing of projects more attractive to investors; here, again, it seems Treasury support is needed.

Meanwhile, the types of resilience measures being readily suggested by industry experts – including raising electrical sockets and commissioning water-resistant materials for buildings – are in danger of being overlooked if left to market forces or the vagaries of local planning decisions. Better would be enforcement through Building Regulations in at-risk areas.

There is also significant concern that maintenance work on defences is falling victim to government cuts to local authority budgets, leaving some authorities unable to adequately resource protection for their communities. Despite its overall strategic responsibility for flood protection, the Environment Agency is only directly responsible for the maintenance of less than half of all flood defences, with local authorities, internal drainage boards and private landowners accountable for the rest.

All of this demonstrates that there is a need for much greater co-ordination across the public sector to minimise the risk of the scenes of the last month becoming commonplace.

There are clear echoes here of the problems with the government’s wider approach to climate change, with supposed belief in the urgency of action exhibited at the recent Paris summit at odds with individual departmental policies. Perhaps, when it comes to flooding, the sheer immediacy of the issue to the electorate will force a better outcome.

Sarah Richardson, editor