VITAL FLOOD defence schemes have been put on hold while the Environment Agency upgrades outdated and often ineffective national flood prediction and warning systems.
Many local authorities are raiding flood defence works budgets so they can spend more money on flood response.
This is despite a Government pledge of £7M a year to improve flood response plans. Many local authorities say it is not enough to cover the extra spending.
Last week regional and flood defence committees met to finalise their flood management and warning budgets. Past underfunding has left massive gaps in prediction and warning systems and in monitoring and maintenance of existing defences.
Hardest hit are sparsely populated areas in the South West, Wales and East Anglia where the prospects for raising extra money from community charge payers are limited.
Floods minister Elliot Morley made modernising Britain's flood warning system a priority in an action plan published by the Agency in October.
This was drawn up to address deficiencies highlighted by retired Suffolk County Council chief executive Peter Bye in his independent report on flooding last Easter which left five dead and millions of pounds of property destroyed.
'The minister has given a clear indication of his priorities,' said Agency national flood defence manager Brian Utteridge. 'We understand the pressures on local authority funding but it is disappointing that many new capital projects will be delayed.'
Priorities include overhauling the flood plain mapping, improving communication systems, upgrading flood prediction equipment and increasing the inspection and maintenance of existing defences.
But many regional flood defence committees have been unable to persuade local authorities to give them more money so they can meet the minister's priorities while continuing to fund new river defence and flood alleviation projects.
Chairman of the South West Regional Flood Defence Committee Deborah Clark said schemes had been delayed in Devon and Cornwall as long as 20 years.
The South West region's capital works programme has been slashed from about £3M to less than £500,000 after local authorities only agreed a 6.3% increase in funding. This was the biggest increase for seven years but was much less than the 20% increase recommended by the Agency.
In Wales the flood defence budget faces a £638,000 shortfall because three of the six local flood defence committees were unable to agree extra local authority funding to meet the Agency's predicted spending needs. Total flood defence budget for the whole of Wales is just £10.8M.
'Schemes will not go ahead, particularly in south Wales,' said RFDC chairman John Hughes. 'It is difficult for us - we want to use contractors and keep them working so that they maintain experience in this specialised field.' South west Wales faces a £269,000 shortfall.
In the south of England schemes have also been hit after local authority levies were returned below Agency recommendations. Sussex will have to postpone its coastal protection scheme at Seaford to cope with its £150,000 shortfall.
Agency southern regional flood defence manager Ken Allison said that while meeting the action plan priorities was vital, it is was also important that flood defence was seen as an integrated activity.
(See Analysis page 10)