Civil engineers have warned that the devastation caused by Storm Desmond shows the folly of the government’s spending review strategy of slashing revenue budgets while raising capital spending.
Intense rainfall in Cumbria last weekend led to closure of several local roads, damage to a number of bridges, power cuts in thousands of homes and suspension of a section of the West Coast Main Line.
Ministers were forced to hold emergency meetings over the issue just weeks after chancellor George Osborne delivered his spending review proclaiming “We are the builders”.
Osborne set aside £2.3bn in November for more than 1,500 flood defence schemes in the six years to April 2021, and pledged £73bn for roads and rail over the same time period.
However he also slashed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ day-to-day spending budget by 15% this Parliament, and the Department for Transport’s by 37%.
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (Ceca) warned ahead of the November spending review that such a strategy could lead to a two-tier infrastructure system in the UK.
And Ceca chief executive Alasdair Reisner said today: “If you spend £100M to increase capacity but a part of the existing road network is flooded and out of use because you’ve cut maintenance budgets by a few million, that’s not necessarily a great use of money. As well as building new infrastructure, we need to look after what we have.”
Osborne has pledged £60M in response to the floods in the North West, money which will help rebuild flood defences and assess damage to roads as well as helping affected businesses and residents. The government said it would consider further infrastructure spending in the region, and opened the Bellwin scheme for councils affected by floods to claim compensation for exceptional costs.
Reisner said local people could also be asked to contribute to rebuild work.
“There are not unlimited pots of money yet there are national and local assets that need to be repaired,” he said. “Our view is that the cost of such repairs should fall as closely as possible on the beneficiaries, whether they be users or the general public. This means that the contributions are likely to come from a range of sources.”
He added that the latest floods, coming just two winters after widespread damage in the South West, showed the need for a refocus on how the UK manages extreme weather.
“Cumbria has suffered an unexpectedly large flooding event but that is happening more and more and suggesting a trend that might need to change the way government and indeed society think about flooding,” said Reisner.
“We need a national conversation about how we address flood risk or whether we just accept it. Ways of addressing it would largely focus on increasing defences and increasing the resilience of assets, while also looking at ways to better manage extreme rainfall.
“It is clear that some of the answers may mean a greater call for funding than exists at the moment. As such, part of the discussion should focus on the fairest way to pay for additional work.”
Reisner’s comments come in the same week that ICE past president and flood expert professor David Balmforth said the Cumbria floods were a “salutary lesson” in the limitation of flood defences and the importance of flood resilience.
“Government’s commitment to invest £2.3bn in flood risk management over the next six years is welcome, but as extreme weather events become more frequent and unpredictable, we will need a more holistic approach to flood resilience,” said Balmforth.
Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss said today that river levels were falling in Cumbria and Lancashire.
“As the flood waters begin to recede, our priority is shifting from rescue to recovery and getting those families affected by this week’s devastating floods back into their homes, and businesses back on their feet,” she said.
“Later today I will chair a further Cabinet Office Briefing Room meeting to assess where, and how, we can most effectively deploy further resources from across government to support affected communities.”