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‘Contradictory’ and ‘Self-Defeating’: MPs Slam Government for Building New Houses in High-Flood Risk Areas

As Chancellor, Rishi Sunak reduced the budget for flood protection

Floods on the road between Muchelney and Langport in Somerset. Photo: Graham Hunt/Alamy

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The Government’s plans to tackle the growing problems of flooding – particularly in rural areas – are “a drop in the ocean”, according to a new parliamentary report.

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee is highly critical of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency for failing to protect people from flooding – or even knowing how much money is required to solve the problem.

It follows a damning report by the National Audit Office last year which found that nearly six million homes are at risk from flooding and that only 200,000 more could be protected by 2027, instead of a planned 336,000. As Chancellor, Rishi Sunak reduced the budget for flood protection.

Now, after questioning officials from both bodies, MPs are demanding faster action to tackle the problem – particularly as the agency underspent its budget by £310 million in the first two years of a six-year programme.

Deteriorating flood defences are putting 203,000 more properties at risk of flooding – 3,000 more than the extra 200,000 homes due to be protected by 2027 under a £5.2 billion programme.

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Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the committee’s deputy chair, said: “With the reality of climate change and increasing rainfall, robust flood resilience must of course become an ever-increasing priority. As we have recently seen once again, the depredations caused by such disasters are a matter of life and death for communities up and down the country.

“This inquiry has uncovered the alarming truth that, in a number of ways, the approach to keeping our citizens safe in this area is contradictory and self-defeating, not least in the continuing development of new housing in areas of high flood risk without appropriate mitigations.

“The number of properties at risk of flooding from deteriorating defences eclipsing those benefitting from new ones is another case in point. This is emblematic both of the Government’s failure to strike the right balance between maintenance and construction, and of not considering the net number of properties at risk.”

The NAO already highlighted storms Babet and Ciaran which struck in October and November 2023. The Met Office reported that 18 to 20 October 2023 was the third-wettest independent three-day period for England and Wales in a series dating back to 1891. The Environment Agency reported that, by the end of October, Storm Babet alone had caused 2,200 homes to be flooded.

Storm Henk caused widespread flooding at the beginning of this year.

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The only change the Environment Agency made was to transfer £25 million of the unused money to improve maintenance and allocated £100 million to help alleviate flooding in isolated homes in rural areas. The committee called this “a drop in the ocean” to tackle the problem.

It also criticised the bureaucracy required to set up small scale flood protection schemes and the need to attract partners – whether private or local authorities – to finance the work. The result is that flood prevention schemes are skewed to where the agency can get partners rather than to where there is a need to combat flooding, the MPs found.

The committee is demanding that the agency publishes a list of overdue work held up by lack of partners by April.

The MPs are also critical that new estates are still being built on flood plains which will only add to the problem. The agency claims that 99% are not – but admits the 1% includes large estates.

Measures to protect homes, ordered by the Environment Agency, are not often inspected to see if they are carried out as many local authorities do not have the resources or expertise to do so.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Since 2010, we have invested over £6 billion to better protect over 600,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion. Thanks to this significant investment, 381,000 homes have been protected since 2015, with over 102,000 protected during Storm Henk.

“We’re now going further to improve capacity to deliver flood defences, with a record £5.2 billion being invested between 2021-27, creating thousands of new flood and coastal risk management schemes to better protect hundreds of thousands of properties across England.

“We will consider the PAC’s recommendations as we continue to work closely with the Environment Agency to protect hundreds of thousands of homes from floods.”  

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