The responsibility for flood defences could be handed to Yorkshire Water to help breach a huge funding gap which is appearing as a result of Government cuts, a Yorkshire MP said yesterday.
Spending cuts have seen the Environment Agency facing a cut of £100m in its budget for dealing with flooding for the current financial year.
A National Audit Office report warns that without an increase in central funding from 2015, the burden for maintaining defences would increasingly fall on local authorities.
But not only were they voicing “considerable concern about securing sufficient local funds, especially in the current economic climate”, less than a third felt they had the technical expertise to manage local flood risks.
Beverley and Holderness MP Graham Stuart, whose constituency was one of the worst hit areas in the floods of 2007, said public funding could not be relied upon in future. He believes “cheaper, more effective, less stop-start, less wasteful and an overall better service” could be delivered by water companies like Yorkshire Water.
Mr Stuart said it would add to household bills, but said: “What we need is to have a public debate to decide how much of a priority we want to give flood protection. If you want a consistent, high-quality flood defence at an agreed standard, which is not subject to the vagaries of political pressure and priority, I think this is a way of doing it and worth examining.”
He added: “Just carrying on as we are doesn’t offer the security I want for residents in East Yorkshire.”
The report said the Environment Agency estimated it needed an annual increase of £20m or nine per cent more on its budget from the Government to maintain defences. But Government spending had been reduced by 10 per cent over the current spending review period compared to the last.
Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The annual cost of flood damage is £1.1bn and one in six properties in England face this threat, but they are being put at risk through reduced funding and a lack of technical expertise.
“A huge funding gap is opening up between what is required to maintain current levels of flood defence and Government funding.”
She said the Environment Department (Defra), which funds the Environment Agency was hoping for the private sector to fill the gap.
But she said this would have to increase dramatically because the private sector currently contributes on average less than £3m of overall spend each year.
She added: “It is deeply worrying that only 30 per cent of local authorities believe they have the necessary skills to manage flood risk.
“They are now responsible for local flood risk management and must do so with reduced budgets.”
Richard Flint, Yorkshire Water’s chief executive, said since 2007 they had been actively involved with local authorities and the Environment Agency in developing water management planning and a flood emergency response. They were now hearing “some very real concerns” about spending cuts on flood alleviation projects in Yorkshire, and were keen to “play a bigger role”.
On a more positive note, the report found that the Environment Agency had improved its own efficiency since the last NAO study in 2007, with 98 per cent of crucial defences in target condition and better flood protection provided for 182,000 homes against a goal of 145,000.