Risk of floods in England up due to cuts in government funding, say NAO

Flood defence spending has fallen by 10% over course of this government leaving half of country’s defences with ‘minimal’ maintenance, says National Audit Office report

The risk of flooding is rising as a result of government funding cuts, according to a damning report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which says the cuts are a false economy. Half the nation’s flood defences have been left with “minimal” maintenance, according to the spending watchdog.

Flooding devastated large parts of England after record rainfall last winter and David Cameron delivered £270m of emergency funding, claiming his government was now spending more than ever before.

However, the NAO concluded spending on maintenance had fallen by 6% in real terms in the five years of the coalition government. Furthermore, overall funding had fallen by 10% in real terms, said the NAO, when the one-off emergency funding was excluded.

The report also found that 86% of local authorities had failed to publish their flood risk strategies despite being required to do so by ministers since 2011.

Five million homes in England are at risk of flooding and the government’s own assessment shows climate change is increasing the risk by driving more extreme weather. The NAO report, published on Wednesday, said every £1 spent on flood defences prevented almost £10 in damage. The report noted: “Ad-hoc emergency spending is less good value than sustained maintenance.”

“The underlying spending on flood defences has gone down,” said NAO auditor general, Amyas Morse. “Difficult decisions about whether to continue maintaining defences in some areas or let them lapse [must be made], increasing in future both the risk of floods and the potential need for more expensive ad-hoc emergency solutions.”

Margaret Hodge MP, chair of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said: “I am deeply concerned that current levels of spending are not enough to maintain flood protection.” She said the cuts by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were “alarming” and described the extra £270m as an “emergency bailout”.

Flooding minister Dan Rogerson said the NAO, which scrutinises public spending on behalf of parliament, had used the wrong numbers. ‪

“The NAO has drawn conclusions on funding based on inappropriate comparisons. We have invested £3.2bn in flood management and defences over the course of this parliament which is a real-term increase.” The government prefers to compare the six-year period after the 2010 election with the six years before. The latter includes several low-spending years, before major floods in 2007 led to a sharp rise in spending.

Rogerson added: “We are also ensuring that our investment strategy will deliver long-term value for money by setting out the first ever six-year programme.”

The NAO report concluded: “The achievement of value for money in the long term remains significantly uncertain.”

“Cameron promised that ‘money was no object’ when it came to flooding but the NAO report makes clear that spending on flood defences is down,” said Maria Eagle, shadow environment secretary. “Ignoring the evidence on climate change has led to the government making the wrong choices.” She said a Labour government would “reprioritise” long-term spending to cut flood risk.

“The NAO report highlights the need for proper flood risk management and the need to invest in it now,” said Paul Cobbing, chief executive of the National Flood Forum, which represents and supports community groups. “We have to rise to the challenge because clearly what we are doing at the moment is not creating safer communities.”

The NAO report praised the Environment Agency (EA), which builds and manages England’s flood defences. “In the face of increasing flood risk and pressure on defences, the EA has improved the cost effectiveness of its flood risk spending ... It is achieving value for money.”

But the NAO said the EA had failed to tell local communities about cutbacks in maintenance spending on defences in some areas. “It will be very worrying for communities who may not know what is going on,” said Cobbing. “People also feel they are not being listened to.”

MPs warned the government in June that devastating winter floods could hit England again unless cuts to flood defence budgets were reversed. Money for the maintenance of rivers and flood defences was at the “bare minimum”, they said.

In February, the Guardian revealed that flood-stricken communities, including those visited by David Cameron in the Somerset Levels and Kent, had been left without planned defences following government funding cuts, as were defences in the Thames Valley. In 2012, the Guardian also revealed that 294 flood defence schemes across England had been left unbuilt due to budget cuts.

Friends of the Earth’s Guy Shrubsole said: “The NAO’s findings are a damning indictment of government neglect. The coalition is letting flood defences crumble as sea levels rise and extreme weather worsens.” He said the government must plug the £500m hole in flood defence spending identified by its official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change.


Damian Carrington

The GuardianTramp

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