A proposed increase in the power of the Environment Agency to block developments in flood plain areas could bring many regeneration projects to a halt, industry experts have warned

The fears have been sparked by planning minister Keith Hill’s promise last week to give the EA a bigger role in vetting development in flood-risk zones.

The strategy will apply to all developments containing 10 or more dwellings or covering 0.5 ha. All schemes to which the EA mounts a sustained objection will face an automatic call-in to the ODPM.

Councils will also have to refer to the relevant government office all non-residential developments larger than 1 ha or 1000 m2 that the EA says should be refused.

Industry sources predict that giving the EA more power will frustrate government efforts to stimulate higher levels of housebuilding in the South-east.

Planning consultant Roger Humber said: “In the whole of human history, humanity has settled on flood plains, and as a result we have built more effective flood defences.

“I can’t see how this [the EA’s expanded role] can possibly be reconciled with the government’s wish to develop more urban brownfield sites, most of which are in flood-risk areas. This seems a recipe for thwarting every one of the government’s agendas.”

EA’s role needs strengthening – one in eight applications to which it objects go ahead regardless

Richard Woodford, director of Manchester-based consultant HOW Planning consultant, expressed worries that so much power should be placed in the hands of EA, given the inconsistent nature of the advice it issues.

In his statement, Hill said that the EA’s role needed strengthening because its advice was often ignored – one in eight applications to which the agency objects go ahead regardless. He added that regional spatial strategies, local development plans and planning applications would all have to contain a flood-risk assessment.

The minister’s announcement was welcomed by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), which has conducted an intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to toughen up flooding policy. It has also warned that its members will refuse to cover schemes in areas at risk of flooding, including much of the Thames Gateway.

Nick Starling, ABI director of general insurance, said: “The government’s commitment to developing and sustaining an effective flood management strategy will enable insurance to remain readily available and competitively priced to the vast majority. The policies are flowing in the right direction.”

The new powers will be outlined in revised planning guidance on development and flooding Planning Policy Statement 25, due to be published later this year and updated on a rolling basis.