Last week the Government committed an extra £130 million to help with the flooding. From existing budgets 42 new schemes were given the green light to start construction in 2014/15. A further 13 schemes previously announced will also be starting. The Prime Minister has pledged that “money is no object in this relief effort” and yesterday the Government announced a package of grants and other financial support to help households and businesses recover after the flooding. So will we now be spending enough to avoid flood risk from increasing further?
The new money will bring at least some comfort to those communities around the country who have seen exceptional weather this winter. It will primarily be spent on repairing and reinstating defences that have been damaged in the recent storms. It will help us recover existing levels of protection, back to where we were a few months ago. It is expected to be a temporary funding boost, coming from Defra’s contingency reserves rather than as a permanent addition to the floods budget.
So the additional funding won’t materially address the rising long-term flood risk given the latest assessment of the investment need. As we have previously stated, by 2015 we are on course to spend half a billion pounds less on flood and coastal defence over this Parliament than the amount needed to avoid more homes becoming at significant risk over time. This remains the case.
Future funding: commitments vs. requirements
Annual levels of investment are then due to remain constant between 2015 and 2021 after accounting for inflation. Spending during the next Parliament will start £180 million per year below the long-term need, and is set to finish it considerably further behind. If we are to make up for the shortfall external contributions from scheme partners will need to increase significantly and continue to rise. But the amount that can be leveraged will be constrained by the amount the Government itself spends.
As well as limiting investment in new assets, the current spending deficit will have implications for the maintenance of existing flood defences and the Environment Agency’s ability to respond to future flood emergencies. The Environment Agency has already lost up to 800 flood risk management staff following the budget cuts in 2010. A further 1,500 jobs are expected to be lost across the Environment Agency by October this year. It is not yet clear what the cumulative impact will be on the Environment Agency’s ability to manage flood risk and respond to future events.
The current focus of course is on the immediate needs of the communities so badly affected by the flooding. As the Prime Minister says, things may well get worse before they get better. But as the flood waters recede the focus should quickly turn to what more we should be doing to reduce future flood risk. Flooding will always occur, especially as our climate changes. So the question is: how much flood risk is too much? How much is it worth spending to limit future damages? Are we content to allow flood risk to increase over time, including through continuing to build on the flood plain?
At the moment the Government says it will return to at least some of these questions with an updated, long-term assessment as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in nine or ten month’s time.