Addressing the funding gap for flood defence maintenance

Addressing the funding gap for flood defence maintenance

We have had a very wet winter. Since October 2023, Storms Babet, Kieran, and Henk all brought significant heavy rainfall across much of the UK, causing flood misery to over 2,000 properties and putting large swathes of our best quality food producing land underwater. Recovery for the people, environment, roads, infrastructure, and local economies all comes at a cost.

Failures in the system

Unfortunately, we have seen around a dozen failures (breaches/slumping/scouring) of main river embankments so far this winter across lowland Eastern England. In several cases failure has occurred at known weak points owing to animal burrowing or seepage. Whilst these weaknesses are generally reported quickly, action to prevent escalation or repair is lamentably slow. Immediate repair work might generally be in the region of tens of thousands of pounds but with delay and bureaucracy, repair and recovery can be expected to be in the millions of pounds. The majority of these embankment breaches have not yet been fixed, with land remaining inundated. There is just no point in turning any pumps back on until these repairs have been done.

Simply put, the Environment Agency does not have the revenue maintenance funding, nor the operational staff resource, it needs to look after the extent of its FCERM asset base and so understandably has to triage problems and act on a proportionate risk basis, limiting much of its maintenance activity to high consequence systems.

A tipping point

I strongly believe that we have reached a tipping point where reactive actions are costing the country more than taking a pro-active approach to better maintaining and managing our existing flood defences, and in particular the waterways and water management assets of our lowlands.

I am not alone in shouting out about this – the National Infrastructure Commission and the Public Accounts Committee both recognise the same situation we are in and have made a clear call on Government to change tack. That means taking steps towards re-balancing the budget allocations between capital investment and revenue allocation for the proper levels of maintenance and management of all our existing flood defence assets. Our economists have started to accept that you get more bang for your buck in spending money looking after those assets than building new ones.

Why? Because we have generally completed the projects considered to be the “low hanging fruit” across England when it comes to reducing flood risk to people and property. The next tranche of projects that are to be delivered in the current spending period are considerably more challenging and therefore costlier to deliver.

Rebalancing investment

In a variety of conversations I have had with people who know about these things, I am sensing that the blockage in the system is a long-standing ethos adopted by HM Treasury that favours capital spending, and dislikes revenue investment. Revenue spending is paid for by direct taxation and, with around six million flood risk taxpayers in England, I would challenge that they have a right to see some of their taxes better used in managing all the current flood risk assets. HM Treasury does have competing demands and needs to balance the books, but is there enough thought being given to the indirect costs to our wider environment and economy resulting from flooding? Health, infrastructure, education, and care are all impacted by flooding, but do we properly factor in all those costs after an event?

Whilst all flood risk management authorities recognise the strong need for greater investment, there is a realism that we need to make best use of what we have got. The Chancellor can influence that this spring by rebalancing the split between capital and revenue spending in favour of better long term maintenance of our flood defence assets and lowland waterways.

That will also need experts to deliver the solutions. All of our public authorities are badly lacking the operational staff resources needed to recover from the floods and look after assets and systems for the future.

The Government has offered internal drainage boards £75 million to help with storm recovery and improvements for their own assets, and that is very welcome. Local Authorities and the Environment Agency also need assistance in the aftermath of the winter storms as we all work together to provide a joined-up service. ADA is concerned that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not earmark any additional funding to assist with the post storm recovery and repair of the Environment Agency’s flood defence assets and systems within the Spring Budget on 5 March 2024. It’s no good looking after one bit of the system well when the other part of the same system is falling over – a bit like replacing your hip when your knee also needs attention!

Without proper attention to maintaining our flood risk management assets, we are sleepwalking into and economic and environmental disaster, let alone the social consequences that would ripple from that. Now is the time to change to a purposeful, pro-active approach to flood risk management maintenance to increase our climate resilience today.