FLOOD PRONE local authorities fear their budgets will be increasingly squeezed by a new centrally allocated flood and coastal defence funding regime due to come into force next April.
Although central government will fund Environment Agency flood defence spending in the future, councils in high risk areas fear they will have to top up this cash with additional levies worth more than £20M a year.
'Local authorities are already being squeezed hard in other ways and it will be very difficult to meet additional levies, ' said Bob Wilkins, director of transport and environment for East Sussex County Council.
Speaking at an Environment Agency-backed conference on flood risk management last week, Agency chairman Sir John Harman confirmed that local authorities would have to continue to raise cash for local schemes in future. But he said he expected the new system to boost spending on the nation's flood defences and provide a more sensible balance between national and local needs.
'It would be criminal to wave goodbye to this extra money, ' he said, referring to the funds currently raised annually by local authority levies. 'We must keep alive the purpose and fact of levy raising, done at local discretion.'
However, councils fear that the April 2004 start date does not give them enough time to budget for the additional cash.
'I am concerned that things are being rushed and would really like to see this happen in another year, ' said environmental policy analyst and head of the Wessex Regional Flood Defence Committee Humphrey Temperley.
Under the old system, local authorities paid a levy to the Environment Agency for flood defence schemes. Central government then repaid this cash the following year.
The new system will see funds issued directly to the Environment Agency and distributed to regional schemes on a priority basis, calculated using their new risk assessment procedure (see flood risk management supplement, this issue).
Local authorities in high flood risk areas already regularly pay out more on flood defence than they get back from central government, with the shortfall estimated at £21.5M a year.
Bernadette Redfern INFOPLUS www. nceplus.co.uk