Defra (Department Evading Flood Risk Assessments)
“Savings must not have an adverse impact on the Department’s ability to respond to emergencies.” This was the blunt message from an independent report by MPs on critical issues for the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Faced with managing flooding and other critical risks, his department’s budget has been cut by £500 million since the 2010 and faces another £300m cut to 2015–16. Much of its floods work is outsourced to the Environment Agency. Prospect’s Deputy General Secretary Leslie Manasseh called for an immediate moratorium on 1,500 job cuts in the Agency in the light of the flooding that has swept the UK this winter. Sir David King, the government’s special envoy on climate change, said the UK must do more to manage the problem, potentially doubling spending to £1bn a year by 2020, “as extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent.”
Government capital spending on new flood defences is forecast to rise to £370 million in 2015–16. But that’s about half the level of investment in 2009 (£664m), and far short of the £1bn a year recommended in a 2004 baseline report. Investment in flood risk management represents good value for money. Most new flood defence schemes now built reduce expected damage by at least £8 for every £1 spent.
In 2009, the Environment Agency said it was time for a “public debate on how society should manage flood and coastal risk.” These are some of the issues:
Raising public awareness vs stifling debate on climate change
Climate change scepticism at the highest levels of government has frustrated open public debate on the risks the UK faces from extreme weather events. In June 2013, investors demanded an inquiry into the UK government’s decision to abandon a review into the impact of climate change and resource depletion on national growth prospects.
Transparency about public investment
The government appears to be spending less than half the necessary level of investment in flood prevention from rivers and seas than the first national flood risk assessment recommended in 2004. Ten years ago, an independent expert review said investment of £1billion to £2 billion a year was required for rivers and coasts.
Ministers insist that long-term capital spending to fund new defences is rising, with annual funding on flood defence set to go up from £533m in 2013-14 to £569m in 2014-15.
But these are contested figures. MPs reckon it will rise to £370 next year. On average, government spending on flood defences will actually have dropped:
- £2.36bn in 2007-2011 (or £472 a year)
- £2.32bn in 2011-2015 (or £464 a year).
Asked about the discrepancy, the prime minister’s claim of record spending appears to include another £148m of funding which is expected to come from the private sector. But the MPs’ report said: “ beneficiaries such as developers should help to fund new flood defence schemes. However, we are concerned about the small amounts of private sector funding that have been secured to date.”
Sustaining staff numbers
Deep staff cuts are also underway at the Environment Agency , which has an annual budget of £1.2bn, cutting staff from 11,250 to about 9,700 by October.
The agency’s chief executive Paul Leinster told the environment journal ENDS that the staff cuts would have an effect on its capacity to support flood defence. “All of our work on mapping and modelling and new developments in things like flood warning will also have to be resized….we’re looking at a proportionate reduction in the number of people in flood risk management.”
Public understanding of climate risks – present and future
The Environment Agency issued nearly 7,000 flood alerts and warnings in 2012-13, the largest number in its history.
According to an official report on climate change, “Extreme events, such as the flooding which occurred throughout the country in late 2012, or the drought of early 2012, are likely to become more frequent and more severe in the coming decades, bringing potential disruption to the economy.” The UK floods in 2007 were estimated to have cost businesses £740 million, last year’s floods caused £600m worth of losses to the economy.
The 2009 Pitt Review of flood risk investment said “Work is badly needed to refine the figures and so provide government with a more reliable evidence base from which to set the level of annual investment in flood risk management.”
One in six homes in England is at risk of flooding – or over 2.4 million properties at risk from rivers or the sea in England, of which nearly half a million are at significant risk.