Today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO) finds that the government is on track to achieve its target for better protecting 300,000 more homes from flooding by March 2021 but does not have a comprehensive measure of its progress in reducing the overall level of flood risk across England.
The government set the Environment Agency (EA) a target of better protecting 300,000 homes from flooding between 2015 and 2021, through an investment of £2.6 billion. The EA is on track to meet this target within its budget. Since 2015, over 700 new flood defence schemes have been introduced, providing better protection for over 242,000 homes. On average, EA has spent £2,750 for each property with an annual likelihood of flooding of at least 1%. By providing better protection for 242,000 homes, EA’s investment programme has delivered valuable benefits for people, with flood risk being substantially lower for many thousands of homes in England.
The ‘homes better protected’ target is an easy to understand performance measure, but on its own does not provide a good view of progress in tackling overall flood risk. It does not provide any indication of what has happened to flood risk for non-residential buildings, agricultural land and other infrastructure. The headline figure of 242,000 homes better protected also does not take account of properties that have become less well protected due to factors such as housing development, climate change and the condition of flood defence assets. EA uses its National Flood Risk Assessment to estimate the number of properties at risk of flooding each year and estimates that there are 50,000 fewer properties with an annual likelihood of flooding of at least 1% in 2020 compared with 2016. Changes in methodology during the period mean this figure is not wholly reliable, but it provides an indication of the overall impact of the programme.
Following the 2019-20 autumn and winter floods, the number of properties at risk as a result of the condition of EA flood defences and other infrastructure assets increased by 171% from 70,000 in 2018-19, to 189,000 in 2019-20. In the March 2020 budget, the government provided £120 million of additional funding for 2020-21 to fund over 600 projects to repair EA assets damaged in the autumn and winter floods. Of these, 151 have been completed so far, 80% are expected to be completed by the end of 2020. For the remainder, EA is aiming to have measures in place to mitigate any immediate risks arising from potential floods in winter 2020-21. Research commissioned by the EA estimates that the cost of repairing and maintaining flood defences could increase by between 20% and 70% a year as a result of climate change.
The NAO has found that there are gaps in the government’s understanding of public spending for flood defence.1 Without this knowledge, it cannot assess whether local authorities and other organisations have the resources they need to manage flood risk effectively. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has committed to reviewing local government funding for flooding to ensure it is fair and matches the needs and resources of local areas, but a date for this has not been set.
The government’s approach is designed to ensure deprived areas do not miss out on investment, but the proportion of funding for flood defence going to the 20% most deprived areas has reduced substantially since 2014. The government requires many flood schemes to be part-funded by communities, local authorities or businesses in the private sector. The system includes provisions for deprived communities who may have difficulty raising this type of investment. However, very few of the homes better protected in 2019 were in deprived areas; the proportion rose from 4% in 2011, to 29% in 2014, but then declined to 8% in 2019. Defra believes this decline is because most of the possible schemes in deprived areas have been completed, although it has not carried out any analysis to support this explanation.
The government has announced that investment in flood defence will increase substantially to £5.6 billion for the period to the end of March 2027, with the aim of better protecting 336,000 properties and reduce flood risk by up to 11%.2 Defra is confident that this increased investment, together with other sources of funding such as that raised by local communities, will be above EA’s estimate for the required level of long-term funding for flood defence. However, the level of these other sources of funding is uncertain.
In July 2020, a ministerial policy statement set out the government’s aim for the nation to be more resilient to the challenges of flooding and coastal erosion. The EA published its new strategy in September, which states a vision for “a nation ready for, and resilient to, flooding and coastal change – today, tomorrow and to the year 2100.”
The EA’s new strategy and the government’s policy statement are a significant step forward, but lack clarity in important areas. Many of the actions in the policy statement are not time-limited or measurable, and some important commitments are not expected to be implemented until well into the future. Neither the policy statement nor the EA’s strategy quantify the level of risk reduction the government expects to achieve in the long term. Defra has committed to developing a national set of indicators to measure and demonstrate success but not until spring 2022.
The NAO recommends that the government provides a clearer sense of direction on what it aims to achieve, and what the measures of success will be for the 2021-2027 flood defence programme. Working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and HM Treasury, Defra should develop a clear understanding of whether flood risk management funding for local authorities is adequate to cover the level of flood risk individual authorities face and report on this each year starting from 2021-22. The EA should report on the geographical distribution of investment in its annual reporting and the amount of investment directed to deprived areas, to help inform policy decisions and government priorities.
Alongside today’s report, the NAO has launched an interactive data visualisation tool which helps people to understand the flood risk and investment in flood defence in their area.3