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Flood defence grants biased to the rich, claim experts

FLOOD DEFENCES are more likely to be built in affluent areas of the UK under current government project assessment guidelines, flood defence experts said this week.

They claimed that Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) guidelines suggest councils consider the 'social class' of building occupants when justifying flood defence projects.

The result is that the affluence of an area's population could affect a scheme's cost effectiveness.

Flooding experts said the higher the estimated value of property and valuables that a proposed flood defence scheme protects, the more likely it is to be eligible for a government grant.

'If you are A or B social class, the possible damage is considered greater as your belongings are more valuable, ' said Flood Defence Research Council (FDRC) flood researcher Edmund Penning-Rousell. A and B social classes include high income professionals and managers.

Penning-Rousell said an area's predominant social class can be found from local census data when economic appraisals for future flood defences are completed.

However, he was unsure how often councils used this information, and added that other criteria such as the environmental impact of a scheme also had to be considered. 'But often the Treasury insists that economics come first, ' he said.

Environment Agency flood defence policy manager Brian Empson said: 'Current project appraisal guidelines rely mainly on Guidance Note 3, which recommends economic appraisal.'

'This does offer problems with some densely populated areas of low value properties compared to a small number of very affluent properties.'

Fears that the wealth of an area could affect flood defence spending were echoed this week in a report from spending watchdog the National Audit Office. It urges MAFF to 'consider whether relative affluence or other local factors inappropriately influence prioritisation of projects'.

But MAFF chief flooding engineer Reg Purnell said that to his knowledge schemes to protect poorer areas had been unaffected by the use of class criteria He added that cost benefit calculations excluded the effects of regional variations in property values.

Penning-Rousell said current project appraisal guidance was inconsistent with the thinking behind assessment of government-funded emergency flood repair schemes and warning systems.

The project appraisal guidance is designed to protect the nation's wealth, while criteria for emergency flood repair schemes are more focused on saving lives rather than possessions.

Penning-Rousell asked: 'Why should we choose money if the priority is people?'

'Let's suggest that the priorities are protecting people - who's to say you won't end up with the same schemes? But you might not.'

FDRC is carrying out a study for MAFF into the social damages of flooding, with a view to feeding the conclusions into the project appraisal system.

This would consider issues such as how easily the disabled and elderly respond to current flood warning systems.

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