The government is shaking up its flood defence policy. Two reports on flood defence responsibility and funding are about to hit desks at the Environment Agency and local authorities. Nina Lovelace reports.
Last autumn saw the heaviest rainfall in England and Wales since the early 18th century. Low lying areas were deluged, people forced to leave their homes for months on end and damage to houses, flood defences, roads and railways cost an estimated £1bn.
One year on, repairs are still being held back by bureaucracy, claim engineers. And they warn that the dangers to people and infrastructure are even greater should this winter see more heavy rainfall.
The government is investigating what should change to enable a faster response to future spates of flooding.
The Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will seek consultation on how to simplify the complex structure of responsibility for flood defences and on whether funding should rise.
Defences on 'main rivers' fall under the responsibility of the Environment Agency; smaller watercourses and drainage channels fall under local authority remit, and private streams, drains and tributaries have a myriad of different owners, including local farmers and water utility companies.
Funding for these authorities is similarly complicated. Capital projects are mainly government funded and local authorities apply for cash on an ad hoc basis.
The Agency gains funding for flood defence maintenance by collecting levies from local authorities. Regional flood defence committees made up of local authority and Agency members authorise the levy.
Agency flood director Gary Lane wants the DEFRA report to recommend cutting down the number of flood committees.
The current system of levy-collection from a myriad of different flood committees is very time-consuming, he says. 'The message we have given in the past is that we would like single tiers of administration.'
Meanwhile, the system of separate routes to capital and maintenance funding is driving down flood defence standards, he adds.
Instead, Lane would like the Agency to receive annual block grants for capital and maintenance works, giving it greater freedom to decide what work is needed where. The Agency would have to be accountable to local authorities, he concedes, but adds that as it ends up spending 75% of an annual £400M national flood defence investment it should be receiving the money directly.
A change in the Agency's responsibilities for main rivers may also help, says Lane. Some agricultural areas that flood but affect less people may be best handed back to local authorities to look after. Equally he feels that smaller watercourses with more critical infrastructure in high risk flood areas should in turn come back under the Agency wing.
The Agency could be given powers to take overall responsibility in areas at high risk of flooding, he adds: 'We need a single organisation looking over watercourses where the risks are higher.' This would also provide flood victims with a better idea of who to go to in case of flood, providing a single source of information and responsibility.
Lane argues for the Agency's overseeing role on the basis that councils often fail to maintain defences adequately because they do not have a duty of care towards defence upkeep and prefer to spend the cash elsewhere.
'A lot of councils don't do the work they're 'supposed to', because they don't have the resources, ' says Lane.
Putting the local authority case, Devon County Council's environment director Edward Chorlton says that forcing councils to take responsibility towards the upkeep of smaller defences is not the simple answer: 'It should not be imposed as a duty unless there is a guaranteed method of funding it.'
Chorlton adds that changing the flood funding structure will not solve all the problems of local authorities: 'Last year we lost two bridges due to damage caused by trees swept along by currents, ' he says. There was also considerable road damage.
'This will still happen even if the Agency has enough money to repair all its defences.'
This type of accidental damage is being investigated by a Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions report, due out in December, on the government's current Bellwin scheme. Bellwin provides councils with money for damage caused by emergencies such as flooding that could not have otherwise been insured against.
Councils struggle to get funds because long term flood damage such as road subsidence is not considered an emergency by the the government. The government tends to argue that councils would have eventually needed to spend on these things anyway, or at least provided insurance against them, say local authority engineers. Clean up operations are eligible under Bellwin but permanent repairs to flood damaged roads, bridges and railways tends to be funded privately.
Local authorities feel that if damage has been caused by exceptional floods or storms and the council was unable to insure against it, the Bellwin scheme should cover it.
Another common complaint about Bellwin is that cash only becomes available after councils have spent more than 0.2% of their total annual budget on repairs following a single, provable flooding incident. 'With smaller authorities 0.2% isn't a very big sum but for a bigger county council it is, ' says Chorlton. 'It's about £1M for Devon.'
Chorlton wants councils to be given block grants towards emergency clean up rather than having to meet a percentage.
This means that, even though councils must pay for the repairs before they can reclaim the cost by the end of the financial year, they will be more certain that the money is coming.
The Agency and councils both agree on the need for more money. Engineers recently asked for double the annual investment of around £400M in its report to government Learning to live with rivers but Lane asks for less. 'We suggest £170M£200M a year more, ' he says.
With luck, the cheque may be on its way.'