Councils 'unprepared for flood risk'

Only 30% of local authorities believe they have requisite expertise to deal with extreme weather conditions, report finds

More than two-thirds of Britain's councils believe they are unprepared for a growing risk of floods, according to an official report out on Friday.

Unitary and county councils will also be hard-pressed to plug a national funding gap of more than £100m while battling more extreme weather conditions, the National Audit Office says.

The report may make uncomfortable reading for owners of the one in six properties that have been designated as under threat from flooding.

It follows the government's decision to give local authorities greater responsibility for managing potential flood problems. The annual cost of flood damage is £1.1bn and is expected to rise.The report found that many councils cannot recruit or retain qualified staff to manage flood risks. So far, only 30% had "requisite expertise" according to the report.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of Parliament's public accounts committee, said the report poses difficult questions for ministers. "It is deeply worrying that only 30% of local authorities believe they have the necessary skills to manage flood risk. They are now responsible for local flood risk management and must do so with reduced budgets. The Department [for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] will need to explain what it is accountable for and what action it will take where appropriate flood risk management is not in place," she said.

Defra has not yet made it clear how it will influence and monitor the water and sewerage companies' response to the councils' new responsibilities, the report added.

The Environment Agency estimates that an average annual increase of £20m needs to be invested by 2035 to sustain current levels of protection as the risk of flooding increases due to climate change. But government cuts will mean a 10% cut year on year until 2015.

The government hopes that the shortfall will be filled by private sources. However, this will have to increase dramatically as the private sector currently contributes on average less than £3m each year.

The Environment Agency is also facing staff cuts. It will lose 300 staff by 2014 having already cut 500 in the past year.

Defra has policy responsibility for flood and coastal risk management. In 2010-11, it spent £664m and gave £629m to the Environment Agency which has operational responsibility for flood and coastal risk management. In addition, local authorities spent £101m supported by revenue support grants on local flood risk management activity.

In 2007, the government commissioned a review by Sir Michael Pitt in response to the major flooding. It made 92 recommendations aimed at clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the flood risk management authorities and improving delivery.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said that government plans to devolve powers to local authorities will be a challenge.

"Local bodies will have to meet the new expectations placed on them – including that of raising investment locally – while under the pressure of delivering on other newly devolved responsibilities. If these challenges are not met, the department's reforms will have failed to fulfil their potential to increase levels of investment in flood management and value for money to the taxpayer," he said. Defra said the UK was better prepared than ever to deal with a major flood.

"We've reformed the funding system to allow the number of flood defence schemes to be increased and give local people greater choice and control over protecting their community from flooding.

"Under the new Partnership Funding system, the most at-risk and deprived areas can receive more money for flood defence schemes with funding from the private sector whenever possible," she said.


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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