Flood defence work delayed by Whitehall cuts, Labour warns

WHITEHALL cuts are slowing the roll-out of new flood defences across Britain, Labour has warned as Ministers announced further funding for small-scale schemes in the worst-hit areas.

Mary Creagh, the Shadow Environment Secretary and MP for Wakefield, claimed the sweeping cuts to key Government agencies pushed through as part of the coalition’s austerity drive in 2010, mean that a string of new schemes will take far longer than necessary to get off the ground.

The Government yesterday announced a further £5m pilot fund for flood-hit communities to trial different methods of reducing flood risk.

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Up to 20 successful bidders around Britain will receive grants for local flood risk management schemes, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) planning to evaluate the success of each to identify the best ways to improve resilience to flooding.

Floods Minister Richard Benyon said: “This scheme will give communities the chance to design and implement their own projects to protect their homes and businesses from future flooding.”

The new pilot follows confirmation in Wednesday’s Autumn Statement that the Government will plough an extra £120m into flood defence schemes, with Leeds and Sheffield among the areas to benefit.

However, Ms Creagh said Ministers were merely reinstating some of the funding they axed in 2010, and that cuts to Defra agencies will inevitably delay the roll-out of the projects – leaving communities at risk.

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“Last week, there was an announcement of a new £120m 
U-turn on flood defence spending,” she said. “However, even after that announcement, the Government will still spend less on flood defences in 2013 than Labour spent in 2008.

“Just 30 per cent of that money will be spent next year, because the Environment Agency no longer has the staff capacity to get the money out of the door.

“It is difficult to decide which is more incompetent: cutting the budget too far in the first place or, when they change their mind, not having the capacity to get the money out of the door and to the communities that need it.”

Her claims were fiercely denied by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who said the coalition was spending more on flood defences during the four-year spending period than Labour had in the four years preceding it.

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Mr Paterson was equally bullish about the Government’s protracted negotiations with the insurance industry over ensuring flood-risk homes can still receive adequate cover when a current agreement runs out next year.

Talks between the two sides have been ongoing for well over a year, with the Association of British Insurers (ABI) recently suggesting they had “broken down”.

Mr Paterson denied this was the case and made it clear he now expects the ABI to come back to the negotiating table with a way forward. “We have been working closely in recent weeks,” he told MPs. “We are involved in detailed negotiations, as the statement of principles was always going to come to an end in 2013.

“We want to achieve a better system of insurance that is as comprehensive as possible, provides affordability, and is not a huge burden on the taxpayer.

“Those detailed negotiations are continuing. The ball is in the ABI’s court and we look forward to hearing from them shortly.”