'Next major scandal brewing' in Government's flood protection plans, MPs warn

The Government has not done enough to ensure all areas of the country get their fair share in flood defences, MPs have said, as it was warned a major scandal was brewing over a failure to protect more homes.

Sand bags placed against a door of a property in Hebden Bridge in the Upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, in anticipation of Storm Christoph last month. Photo: PA

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) released a report today which accused the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) of not doing enough to help victims of recent flooding get affordable insurance, or to remove obstacles for households to install flood protections.

The cross-party group said the continuation of homes being built on flood plains and a “significant decline in the proportion of flood investment going to deprived areas since 2014” meant there were vast variations of protection across the country.

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And their report said: “Neither the Department nor the [Environment] Agency understand enough about the reasons for these investment patterns.”

The Environment Agency estimates that 5.2m properties in England are at risk of flooding, and the Government has boosted investment in flood prevention to £5.6bn up to 2026/27.

But the devastation caused by deluges of water have been seen as recently as last month when Storm Christoph put areas of York underwater.

Storm Ciara hit Yorkshire in February last year, causing damage not seen since the Boxing Day floods of 2015.

And the region also fell victim in South Yorkshire in 2019, as well as many times before.

MPs recognised the Environment Agency’s “significant achievement” of being on track to better protect 300,000 homes on time and on budget, but they concluded Defra needed to have a better understanding of whether flood investment matched the risk an area faced.

And they added current indicators used to monitor the risk of flooding did not take into account risks to agricultural land or infrastructure.

PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “With public finances stretched to the limit, Government and the Environment Agency have to do more to make sure limited funds for flood defence and risk management are spent effectively.

“The risks to our homes, businesses, national infrastructure, food supply and whole ecosystems are not even being properly monitored, much less strategically mitigated.”

The Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch added: “You can see the next major housing and building regulations scandal brewing here – the Government is simply not doing enough to protect the UK’s current housing stock from floods or stepping in to prevent new homes being built on flood plains, and more needs to be done to tackle the prohibitive home insurance costs that result.”

While Sheffield Hallam Labour MP, Olivia Blake, who is a member of the committee said: "The findings in today’s report will be of great concern to communities in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, who have had their lives and livelihoods turned upside down by increased flooding in recent years.

"Despite the best efforts of Sheffield City Council to protect homes and improve flood defences, today's report shows that already scarce local authority budgets, stretched further by the pandemic, are hampering proper flood protection across the country.

"The climate emergency is only going to increase these erratic weather patterns, so it is vital that the government urgently ensure proper funding and fix the gaps in flooding risk assessment and protections, so we can prevent further damage to our communities.

"It is unacceptable that only half of the defences damaged in the 2019-20 winter floods - which saw 1,500 buildings in South Yorkshire flooded - have had their standard of protection restored. This is a disaster waiting to happen - and communities in South Yorkshire will pay the price."

Catherine Wright, Acting Executive Director for Flood and Coastal Risk Management at the Environment Agency, said: “Last year, our flood recovery programme inspected over 20,000 assets and, supported by a £120m government investment, all of our assets are winter ready either through repairs or, where these have not been completed, robust contingency plans are in place.

“But we agree with the Committee’s findings that we need long-term investment to both build and maintain flood defences if we are to continue to protect and prepare the country from the increased risks that the climate emergency is bringing, with impacts already hitting worst case scenario levels.”

A Government spokesperson said: “As the report recognises, we are investing a record £5.2bn in 2,000 new flood and coastal defences between 2021-27, better protecting 336,000 properties and building on the significant progress already made to respond to climate change.

“We are making sure support is targeted where it is needed most with households in the most deprived areas of England qualifying for funding at over twice the rate of the least deprived areas. We are also consulting on changes to Flood Re, to increase the availability and affordability of flood insurance for homes affected by flooding.”