Chaotic flood defences leave large areas at risk, say MPs

Water companies and the government still unprepared for flooding on the same scale as last summer

Britain's defences against river floods are "chaotic", with local authorities, water companies and the government still unprepared to handle flooding on the scale that devastated large areas of the north and the Midlands last summer, according to a committee of MPs.

A six-month investigation by the environment, food and rural affairs committee found a "total lack of awareness" about the vulnerability of large parts of Britain to flooding following heavy rainfall, with no organisation having national or local responsibility. Two events exposed Britain's stark vulnerability to flooding, said the report. In June, large areas of Yorkshire and Humber, Derby, and Worcestershire were swamped when nearly 4.5 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The second big flood mainly affected the Midlands. In all, 13 people died and 44,600 homes were flooded at a cost of at least £3bn.

The MPs found that many badly affected areas had been considered at low risk of flooding, and that the infrastructure to deal with floods was in an "unclear and chaotic state". Evidence suggested that poor maintenance of drains, a lack of river dredging, development on flood plains and a widespread lack of awareness by farmers and landowners all contributed to the floods. The MPs heard that local authorities in Hull and Sheffield lacked information on which areas were vulnerable to flooding and nobody was responsible for issuing flood warnings.

When drains began to overflow it was difficult to determine who was responsible for which drains. MPs want the Environment Agency to provide advice and guidance but said that local authorities should have a statutory duty to ensure effective surface water drainage.

The government has increased spending on flood risk management by £800m since the 2007 floods. But the report said: "This [financial] settlement looks far less impressive under close analysis and is not fully adequate to cope with the risks the country faces. Nor does it come fully into effect for another two years."

Local authorities yesterday backed the MPs, calling on the government to introduce a legal requirement for all organisations to cooperate in fighting the risk of flooding. "We simply cannot continue to have a situation where it is not clear who is responsible for dealing with vitally important functions such as drainage," said Paul Bettison, chair of the Local Government Association's environment board. There are glaring gaps in this country's readiness to cope with widespread flooding.

"Last summer's floods were no fluke, and we run the real risk of witnessing a repeat - or worse - unless urgent action is taken now. The public will not forgive the government if it is not seen to be responding to the lessons learnt from the floods of last summer," said Michael Jack MP, chair of the committee.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "The government recognises just how important sorting out urban drainage is, which is why we are already consulting on who should take the lead on this."

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John Vidal, environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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