Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice

Environment Agency: Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England

Publication of the Committee’s 4th Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“No system of flood defences can provide one hundred per cent protection against flooding. But that’s far from saying we should be content with defences whose condition is not the best possible. The problem is that the condition of flood defences in England and Wales has not greatly improved over five years despite an enormous 40 per cent increase in funding. Over half of the high risk systems, such as those protecting urban areas, are in a condition below the official target and some defences are in a poor condition.

“The chickens came home to roost last June with the dangerous and destructive floods in large parts of the country. Defra announced in July that the total annual budget for flood risk management would nearly double, to £800 million by 2010-11.

“However, the poor track record of the Environment Agency in prioritising spending on the areas most likely to be flooded and the defences needed to protect them will raise doubts whether the new money will be spent to best effect. The Agency must still those doubts by greatly improving its targeting of resources in the light of an analysis of the increased risks of flooding where defences are below target condition.

“When it came to apportioning blame for failures to deal with the floods of 2007, all the different bodies involved in water management were quick to reach a consensus: none of them was responsible. The Environment Agency must bang heads together by taking the lead on preparing and agreeing local drainage plans, making it clear who is responsible for what. It should seek new powers if the deadlock cannot be broken.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 4th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Environment Agency, examined how well the Agency carries out its role to protect people and properties from the risk of flooding, and whether it adequately monitors and maintains the standards of existing flood defence systems.

Some 2.1 million properties, affecting 4.3 million people, are in flood risk areas. The widespread flooding across the Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside in June 2007 and in the South and South West of England a month later, demonstrated the real danger, damage and misery such events cause. The temporary closure of road and rail links and the loss of mains water and electricity supplies in some areas showed the vulnerability of our key infrastructure to flooding.

The Environment Agency is the principal authority responsible for managing the risk of flooding from main rivers and the sea in England and Wales. It took the Agency six years to complete its first six Catchment Flood Management Plans (which set out a long term strategic plan for how flood risk should be managed in a catchment or river basin). The entire programme of 68 plans is unlikely to be completed until December 2008. In addition, early reports suggest that 80% of flooding in the June 2007 event was the result of urban drainage system failure, but there is little evidence of co-ordination between the Agency and other organisations on how to manage the impact of such volumes of rainfall. Drainage lies outside the Agency’s remit, but it is taking part in a £1.7 million pilot project, run by the Department, to identify the best ways to prepare long term (25 year) drainage plans.

Despite an increase in funding from £303 million in 2001-02 to £550 million in 2005-06, spending fell to £483 million in 2006-07 (an increase in real terms of some 40% in five years), the state of flood defences in England has not improved markedly. The funds available for starting new defence schemes are limited, as most are already committed to ongoing schemes. In 2007-08, only 33 new projects are expected to start, at a cost of £20.2 million, with 84% of funds utilised on existing schemes. Some flood defences remain in a poor condition and over half of the high risk flood defence systems, such as those protecting urban areas, are not in their target condition, with consequent risks should a flood occur.

The Agency was not able to show that its maintenance teams were deployed efficiently or that they focused their resources on high risk flood defence systems. The Agency maintains 62% of the total length of raised defences and 37% of the 46,000 flood defence structures. Flood protection also relies in part upon defences owned by private landowners, but whilst the Agency inspects third party maintained defences, it does not necessarily notify the relevant parties of defects identified during its inspections. 

Taken together, the problems set out above played an important part in contributing to the Agency’s failure to protect homeowners sufficiently from flooding in summer 2007. The Agency estimated that an additional £150 million a year was needed to bring flood defence systems up to their target condition. On 2 July 2007, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that by 2010-11, total expenditure on flood risk management would rise to £800 million. Whilst an independent inquiry into the summer floods will seek to establish the causes and adequacy of actions taken in response to the floods in summer 2007, the onus is on the Agency to assure homeowners that the additional funding will be used cost-effectively to minimise the likelihood of similar events in future. The Agency could make more effective use of the funding already available to it:

• through better prioritisation aided by enhanced management information systems;

• by better targeting of resources available based on flood risk in different parts of the country; and,

• by reducing the programme and project development costs when constructing defences.

The Agency also needs to improve its longer term strategic planning.