Anne McIntosh: New forms of funding for flood protection needed

Pickering's new flood defence slow the flow of rapidly-rising rivers.
Pickering's new flood defence slow the flow of rapidly-rising rivers.
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NOTHING could be more miserable than seeing your home inundated by floods. The impact on farmland and the rural economy is significant, but the cost of human misery is enormous and will be longlasting.

It is too early to say what lessons can be learned, but the folly of building on flood plains is clear to see – the combination of rapidly rising rivers, and already saturated land, is dangerous.

There is no magic wand the Government can wave, but we must seek new forms of funding for flood defences, looking to achieve real public-private sector partnerships to protect more communities in the future.

Where appropriate, more schemes like the Pickering Slow the Flow Project should be rolled out to other parts of the country to provide a natural but still effective type of flood defence.

The Government is to undertake a review of its flood protection policy and the 2007 Pitt report provides the framework. What should the new review cover? An analysis of the problem and complete transparency in public spending; a recognition that Government funds alone will not be sufficient to address these extreme weather events and an acceptance that there is no nationwide ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Amongst the potential solutions available, there has to be an understanding that the most physical, highly engineered flood defences – often favoured by the skilled engineers – may neither be the most affordable nor appropriate to the local circumstances. Each should be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

Significantly, the flood defences of Pickering withstood the most recent floods. Yet they might never have been constructed without local organisations and agencies coming together. And let us not forget that the original scheme failed because of unacceptably high costs and falling short of the requirements of the Reservoir Safety Act.

Bearing the title of Pickering in my new role in the Lords, and as vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, I monitor flood protection policy closely.

The report from ADA, presented to Oliver Letwin at the Cabinet Office and Floods Minister Rory Stewart on November 30, made a number of recommendations. It said that farmers be allowed to dredge and maintain watercourses by agreeing a programme of work with the Environment Agency.

The ability to devolve more decision-making and accountability to local strategic partnerships will enable swifter responses to potential maintenance needs and secure greater resilience to flooding.

Floods wreak havoc on the local economy, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The new Government approved Flood Re reinsurance scheme, covering those homes most at risk of flooding, only comes into effect in April. Even then, it carries significant exceptions from cover. New homes built on flood plains after 2009 will not be insurable. Neither will farms nor other businesses at significant risk of flooding.

Flood Re is based on the premise of a zero tolerance approach to inappropriate development in areas at high risk of flooding. Are developers informing those families and businesses purchasing properties at high risk of flooding that there will be either be no insurance cover – or that any premium will be totally unaffordable? They need to.

Are developers designing and fitting sustainable drainage systems to allow surface water to drain away from areas prone to flooding? Are water companies and drainage boards going to be given the status of official consultees on major developments?

Key recommendations from my time as chairman of the Environment Select Committee also remain valid. They are to increase maintenance spending in existing flood defences, pumping stations and such to the level of capital spending in new such defences and equipment. We must end the myth that the £2.3bn to be spent in this Parliament covers the whole problem. In fact, it only relates to spending on capital projects.

We need to match the welcome six year spending programme on capital with a similar one for maintenance. Ideally, we should move to a seamless budget of total expenditure, where there is no classification between capital and maintenance spend.

I urge the Government to be radical, to attract money from the private sector to fund future flood defences. It costs the insurance companies and all of us as their customers a fortune in settling claims for major flood events. Would it not be possible for them to contribute to long term flood protection and resilience measures that would negate such claims arising in the future?

Farmers have a role to play and have an inherent respect for nature. Defra should allow farmers to use the new CAP payments to temporarily retain water on their land. The difficulties presented by the Reservoir Safety Act could be avoided by building dams, planting trees, creating peat bogs and creating temporary storage areas along similar lines to the successful model of Pickering scheme. Relying on local knowledge and what is appropriate to each catchment area, which is unique in itself, is a must.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering is a Tory peer and former MP for Thirsk and Malton. She is also vice president of the Association of Drainage Authorities.