Regional and local flood defence committees met last week to finalise budgets for their flood management and warning programmes. These programmes follow the publication last autumn of new sets of government priorities for tackling flooding.
Many committees found they lack the money to meet these priorities, even though the government allocated an extra £7M a year for the work last October.
Last October the Environment Agency's flood warning action plan acknowledged that the chaos and loss of life, following the widespread flooding in the Midlands last Easter, was unacceptable. It highlighted inadequate prediction, warning, emergency planning and resources as key factors in the disaster.
With publication of the Agency's action plan the Government shifted its priorities away from capital expenditure. They now emphasise flood prediction and warning systems and maintaining existing flood defences rather than focusing on new construction work.
Floods minister Elliot Morley said last October that he wanted to achieve a 'seamless and integrated service of flood forecasting, warning and response' by April 2000.
The Government also earmarked around £7M a year to be spent on meeting these action plan priorities.
The problem is that the extra funding ignores the fact that many local authorities desperately need cash to wipe out a backlog in flood defence construction work.
At the same time local flood defence committees have found that the cost of meeting the Government's new objectives will exceed the extra cash.
Funding flood defence work is notoriously complex. Central government money is allocated via the Environment Agency's regional and local flood defence committees.
These committees are also funded by a local authority levy and depend on what individual councils can afford. Cash for flood defence competes with funding for schools and services like refuse collection and social care (NCE 20/27 August 1998).
The £7M of extra cash increases local authority flood budgets. But it is not enough on its own to pay for some schemes and local authorities will have to find any extra money from community charge payers to make up the rest.
Many authorities - particularly those with low populations - are unable to raise enough extra money to pay for meeting the targets. As a result many regions are having to abandon key flood defence projects in favour of ensuring that the public is warned. The South West, covering Devon and Cornwall, is particularly badly hit, having secured a mere 6.3% rise in funding after seeking 20%.
'I am disappointed that we are having such a hit to our capital works programme. All our focus must now be simply to manage our existing assets,' says South West Regional Flood Defence Committee chairman Deborah Clark.
Wales has also been hit hard. RFDC chairman John Hughes estimates its funding shortfall at £638,000 for this year. The South West Wales area in particular could only secure a 4.9% increase, having asked for 19% and faces a shortfall of around £269,000.
'Much of local authority spending is already ring fenced,' says Hughes. 'This gives authorities very little flexibility. There is no pot of gold to dip into - in local government there is a shortfall of money for all things.'
It is the complex and little-understood funding regime that Utteridge believes needs modernising. 'We have put forward that there should be a review of funding and of the whole committee structure and are working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food to see how this could be improved.'
MPs agree that an overhaul of the system is due. The Agriculture Select Committee recently concluded that current funding arrangements need clarification to make them more transparent. It proposed that flood defence funding be centrally allocated and has asked the Agency for proposals which could come into force this year.
The Agency's current plans see the local flood defence committee system retained but with a larger proportion of funding for nationally important capital works projects allocated by the Agency itself. Currently only small central grants are available for such projects.
'We have got to strike the balance between local democracy and the needs of the UK as a whole,' says Utteridge. He has no doubt that the local committee structure is the best way to decide what work needs to be done, but adds: 'We need a good warning system and good asset management. But we are anxious to participate in this review as our concern is that regions will not be able to raise enough money to do both capital works and meet the needs of the flood action plan.'