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Who will close the floodgates? Bureaucracy, vested interests and waste threaten to undermine our flood defences.

n 200 to 300 years time high sea levels and increased rain fall may well have wrought far reaching, irrevocable change on patterns of flooding in England and Wales'. This was one of the conclusions of the House of Commons Agriculture Committee's report into flood and coastal defences, which was published last week.

The committee highlights the fact that within a dozen generations more than 125km2 of Greater London will be engulfed or at risk from flooding.

'Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, Grimsby, Hull, Manchester and a clutch of other English and Welsh conurbations will also witness the dramatic consequences of rising sea and river levels,' says the report.

Flooding and coastal erosion are already a major problem. Last Easter freak flash floods in the Midlands killed six people. Meanwhile north Norfolk's coast is receding into the sea at up to 7m a year and the East Riding district of Yorkshire is losing on average 12ha a year to the sea.

As the threat of rising water levels increases, MPs have focused on how to respond to the mounting crisis.

Lines of responsibility are hazy. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food is ultimately responsible for coastal and flood defences, but things get more complex at operational level.

MAFF's responsibilities come under the Coastal Protection Act 1949 and are delegated to local authorities and their cross-border coastal management cells.

Major rivers are overseen operationally by the regional flood defence committees of the Environment Agency - now part of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Eighteen months ago the Agency took control of flood warning from the over-stretched Police Force.

Defences themselves are owned by a mish mash of public and private interests. Of the 1,019km of defences around the English coast, 693km are maintained by the Environment Agency, 169km by maritime local authorities and 157km remain within private ownership.

Remaining minor water courses and drains are administered by the 247 Internal Drainage Boards throughout England and Wales.

Confusion in policy and priority is exemplified by recent works on the north Norfolk coastline around Happisburgh. While one 14km section of coast - looked after by MAFF under guidance from the Agency - has had a massive offshore reef and beach replenishment scheme constructed, the adjacent cliff defences - under the control of the local authority - are being abandoned as not cost effective to maintain.

The Select Committee believes a simpler administrative system must be better. It wants an organisational structure which distinguishes between river and coastal defences but allows all types of flood defence management to be fully integrated.

The committee also wants to establish a system of appraising defence schemes that leaves parochial issues and addresses long-term national needs.

MPs want to see MAFF in charge of strategic national policy, as before, but with the Environment Agency in an advisory and supervisory role for both rivers and the coastline. Beyond this, implementation of all inland flood defence would be carried out by the Agency's RFDCs - drawing on expertise from IDBs and Local Flood Defence Committees - and around the coast by newly empowered Coastal Groups. These groups would bring together the responsibilities and powers now shared by local authorities and the RFDCs.

Some might have expected MPs to call for a single flood defence agency but they shied away from this.

'Our general view is that, with the appropriate mechanisms to ensure local level accountability, flood defence responsibilities should be enhanced at a regional level with the Environment Agency assuming new powers.'

The ball is now in the Government's court. Legislation will be needed if a simpler administrative structure is to come about.

Antony Oliver

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