What do England and Wales’s main political parties have to say on flood risk and water resources?

What do England and Wales’s main political parties have to say on flood risk and water resources?

Flooding on the River Witham in October 2023 after Storm Babet. Photo by Kurnia Aerial Photography – The DroneMan.net

By Innes Thomson BSc CEng FICE, Chief Executive, ADA

Having come out of one of the wettest winters on record, political memories seem short lived. There is scant mention of flood risk across all the main parties’ manifestos, despite one in six people in England living at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea, and many more at risk from surface water flooding.

ADA’s Six Point Flood & Drought Risk Management Plan (2024)

Most parties’ environmental focus this election appears to be on reducing pollution within our rivers, following the public outcry about sewage discharges made by water companies. Measures here range from putting ‘water companies under special measures’ (Labour), to ‘replacing Ofwat with a tough new regulator’ (Lib Dems), and ‘using fines from water companies to invest in river restoration projects’ (Conservatives), to ‘bringing privatised utilities back into public hands’ (Green Party).

Labour do have a section in their manifesto on improving resilience, but you have to look for it under the ‘Making Britain a clean energy Superpower’ heading. They state that ‘without action, flooding and coastal erosion will pose greater risks to lives, livelihoods and people’s wellbeing’. Labour say that they will deal with the ‘disjointed’ approach to flood and coastal risk management, ‘improving resilience and preparation across central government, local authorities, local communities, and emergency services’. But further details of specific policy or funding commitments in this area are lacking.

The Conservatives recognise that the ‘increasingly extreme wet weather, underlines the importance of building flood resilience’, praising the investment in new flood defences during their recent terms in office. They state a commitment ‘to maintaining current levels of spending on flood risk’ alongside flood recovery funding to support communities, businesses, and farmers affected by flooding. In their farming and food security section there is a specific commitment to ‘reform our planning system to deliver fast track permissions for the building of infrastructure on farms’, including small-scale reservoirs.

The Liberal Democrats focus on the implementation of Schedule 3 of the Floods & Water Management Act 2010, covering sustainable drainage, and they champion nature-based solutions to tackle climate change. They also wish to ‘strengthen the Office for Environmental Protection and provide more funding to the Environment Agency and Natural England to help protect our environment and enforce environmental laws’.

The Green Party seem clearest about their concerns around under investment in climate adaptation and the public sector more generally. Highlighting ‘crumbling flood defences’ as one of ‘the consequences of the government choosing not to invest’. They push to ‘restore rivers and take a nature-based solutions approach to the prevention of flooding and storm overflows’. They propose a substantial ‘£1.5 billion increase to Defra’s budget’, boosting funding for both the Environment Agency and Natural England, to ‘support the vital work they do to protect our environment’.

Reform UK make no mention of flooding whatsoever within their ‘Contract With The People’, but identify that ‘the UK is at risk of water shortages’ and propose ‘building new reservoirs in high rainfall areas’, so that ‘water can be stored and transferred to low rainfall areas when required’. They also wish to scrap, in their words, ‘Unnecessary Government Quangos’, whilst the Conservatives also say that they want to bring quango spending under control, and ‘improve the Environment Agency and Natural England’s accountability’, giving them ‘clearer objectives to focus on’, that ‘factor in the impact on the rural economy’.

Plaid Cymru want to ‘ensure that both the Welsh Government and the UK Government takes their responsibilities to protecting households seriously by investing in infrastructure to prevent or mitigate flooding incidents’.

What do the above pledges, or lack of them, mean for those of us charged with carrying out vital duties to manage water levels and manage flood risk for over seven million people? This winter’s storms demonstrated our Achilles Heel, putting a great strain on our country’s flood defence assets and systems.  and, in the last few years, we have seen increasing frequency of significant weather events. Over several decades, and governments of different political persuasions, we have seen a steady decline in investment in real terms in our operational and maintenance spending, to the extent that much of our asset base is creaking under the strain. Many of those assets are life-expired and only because of expert management and maintenance, are kept going, but for how long?

As a nation, we have a fixation on spending money on new projects in preference to properly maintaining what we already have. This fixation is led by an economic view where HM Treasury favours capital spending, borrowing money for a project and then showing the return on paper as the asset value increases. Our economists in contrast seem to dislike operations and maintenance, because this is revenue investment funded from direct taxation.

As many observers are now noting, Britain has perhaps reached a tipping point where we risk going into decline unless we take a better balanced view of capital and revenue spending across all sectors, including water level and flood risk management.

It is reassuring that the Comptroller & Auditor General of the National Audit Office, Gareth Davies, is one of those. Recently stating in a speech that:

“Parts of our national infrastructure are crumbling. Maintenance backlogs persist in large parts of the public estate, impeding service delivery and costing more to put right in the long run.

“The efficient maintenance and improvement of existing assets is as important as getting value for money in building new infrastructure. After all, new assets will only deliver promised benefits if they are properly maintained. Capital assets, such as schools, hospitals, prisons, roads and flood defences must be adequately maintained to meet their purpose.”

So back to the manifestos, what could they mean for the civil service and national agencies involved with flood & coastal erosion risk management? Reform and the Tories clearly want to exercise more control over these bodies and might that mean their reduction in size and ability to deliver operational services? The Lib Dems clearly support sustainable drainage and it is possible that Labour will too under their banner of improving resilience, given that they initiated the idea of Schedule 3 and SuDS Approving Bodies (SABs). The Lib Dems and Green Party’s support for nature-based solutions is also clear, but could that be too focused on a singular option rather than emphasizing its important part in a wider range of solutions which we need?

When you are weighing up your voting options this year, and if anyone knocks on your door asking for your vote, quiz them on their Party’s pledges on flooding and the water resources – and be prepared to be underwhelmed – then direct them to ADA’s Six Point Flood & Drought Management Plan (2024).