Jan Royall calls for a strategic flood defence plan, adaptable to the needs of local communities
These days, flood warnings are a regular feature of UK weather forecasts, and unfortunately something we can expect more of in future. Despite the government’s own assessment that climate change would significantly increase our flood risk, funding for protection has been slashed by nearly £100million – a real terms reduction of 17%. This means that hundreds of flood defence schemes are currently on hold, with three-quarters not being maintained as they should be and half only receiving ‘minimal’ support. Indeed, it leaves some places, for example Great Yarmouth, which has the highest numbers of homes at real risk of flooding, fending for themselves.
Last winter, as record levels of rain fell across the UK, we saw the consequences of these decisions: 7,700 homes and 3,200 businesses affected, 49,000 hectares of agricultural land flooded, and travel routes severely disrupted.
Some of the worst affected areas were in the South West, particularly in Somerset. When Parliament broke for summer recess, the Government had paid out just £403,000 to local farmers and only £2,320 to fishermen from the original £10million pledged. So much for Mr Cameron’s assertion, ‘money is no object’.
In fact, the Somerset Levels flood action plan continues to be surrounded by uncertainty. The 20 year strategy requires a government investment of £100million, yet only a third of that amount has been promised. Given the Environment Agency’s estimate that every pound invested in flood defences saves £8 in flood damage, this is deeply troubling. In Worcester for example, its budget has been cut by 33%. Many, including local expert Mary Dhonau, “don’t know how on earth Worcestershire will cope with this reduction.” This is what happens when you have a blinkered approach.
The nature of flooding in our country means that we need to both protect the 5.2million homes at risk and have a long-term strategic plan. That is what the last Labour government put in place, and it is exactly what the Coalition has scrapped. So those areas that are currently not susceptible to severe flooding are being left exposed.
Take Stevenage for example – a town not normally prone to flooding. Hertfordshire County Council has reduced gully and highway maintenance and, this September, following heavy rains, three areas of the town were badly affected with residents forced out of their homes. And some of them are yet to go back. Thanks to a government approach gone wrong, short-sightedness has led to nothing more than pain.
We know however, that when you invest, it works. A few years back, there were terrible floods in Gloucester and the electricity station was in danger. Despite this, investment from the last Labour government ensured that the station and surrounding houses have been safe ever since. Moreover, the next Labour government will reprioritise long-term preventative spending and establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify long term infrastructure needs, including flood defences.
If you invest, if you engage, if you support – not only can you save money in the long-term, you can also ensure that people can live safe in the knowledge that their homes and families are protected.
Baroness Jan Royal of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 26th November 2014