England’s flood defences face a £600m hole unless ministers can demonstrate that the private sector will deliver the sum, a committee of MPs warned on Tuesday.
The government has cut spending on flood defences since 2010, but has sought to supplement the money available by attracting investment from private companies.
“We support the principle, but we have repeatedly expressed concern about the relatively small amounts of private sector funding secured to date,” said Anne McIntosh, who chairs the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee.
Millions of homes are at risk of flooding, and the risk is being driven up by climate change. Devastating floods in the winter of 2013-14 led to ministers partially reversing cuts to flood defence spending with emergency grants, but in November the National Audit Office found funding had fallen by 10% since 2010.
The government has committed £2.3bn for flood defences over the next six years, aimed at protecting 300,000 properties, but that plan relies on a further £600m coming from external contributions. In 2014-15, just £40m of the £148m coming from outside central government came from private sources. The rest came from local authorities, who have also suffered heavy budget cuts.
“It is unclear how the £600m target can be met, and we want the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to demonstrate how it intends to obtain that money and to explain the impact on its investment programme if the money does not come forward,” said McIntosh.
Her committee also criticised Defra for failing to explain what work it had dropped to provide the emergency flood funding, or to cope with a further £200m cut to its overall budget in 2015-16. “We are not aware of any reason why Defra could not identify which specific budgets were reduced, despite our repeated requests for this information,” said the MPs.
Previous Efra committee reports warned that devastating floods could hit England again unless government reversed “massive” cuts to Defra’s budget and that cost-cutting on defences was a false economy.
The new Efra report also criticises a series of other perceived government failures. It describes “slow progress” in designating the 127 marine conservation zones identified by an £8m consultation process. Just 27 have been designated while 23 more are currently being consulted on again.
The report criticises the government for the failure of the controversial badger cull in Gloucestershire, aimed at reducing tuberculosis in cattle, and asks ministers to state whether it will be allowed to continue. It also warns of low staff morale in Defra, where only 28% “believe the board has a clear vision for the future”.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “By the end of this financial year, the partnership funding approach we introduced in 2012 is expected to have raised £140m. This compares with just £13m in the previous four years. We are working closely with the Environment Agency to attract more investment and are introducing tax relief for business contributions to flood risk management projects from 2015 onwards to encourage more investment.”
- This article was amended on 10 February 2015. An earlier version said that the £600m in private-sector investment was part of the government’s £2.3bn programme. The £600m is in addition to the £2.3bn in government funding.