Flood Risk Management in England

The National Audit Office reports today that giving greater responsibility and discretion to local authorities to identify flood risk and target investment raises significant challenges, especially during a time of budget cuts and other newly devolved responsibilities. The NAO considers that greater value for money can be achieved through these reforms, but key elements of what is required are not yet in place.

Local knowledge of surface water flood risk is far less advanced than national information on risk of flooding from rivers and the sea. Local authorities are experiencing difficulty in recruiting and retaining appropriately qualified staff. Only 30 per cent of the local authorities the NAO spoke to thought they had the required technical expertise. Local decision-making is hampered by the need to cross-refer between nearly 20 different plans that affect local flood risk management. It is not yet clear how the Department and the Environment Agency will provide assurance nationally that arrangements are working.

The Environment Agency has improved its own efficiency since the NAO last reported in 2007. The Agency has a better understanding of the condition of existing sea and river defences. It has brought 98 per cent of defences classified as ‘high consequence’ if they fail, up to target condition and is directing more of its funding towards these defences. In addition, the Agency has provided better flood protection for 182,000 households against a target of 145,000.

The Agency estimates that, owing to climate change and ageing defences, an increase of £20 million is required on average each year between 2011 and 2035 to maintain the current level of flood protection. However, central government funding to the Agency has reduced by 10 per cent over this spending review period compared with the last. If central funding does not increase after 2014-15, maintaining and improving the nation’s flood defences will depend on significant additional funding being secured locally. Currently, some 95 per cent of funding is provided by central government.

The NAO found that local bodies will be hard-pressed to plug any funding gap while under pressure to deliver a number of other newly devolved responsibilities. And the Department’s plans to encourage more local funding could see some defence schemes that have attracted private or other funding going ahead in advance of schemes elsewhere that provide greater benefits.

"Greater local discretion over how funding is targeted has the potential to improve value for money in flood risk management. Local bodies will have to meet the new expectations placed on them - including that of raising investment locally - while under the pressure of delivering on other newly devolved responsibilities. If these challenges are not met, the Department's reforms will have failed to fulfil their potential to increase levels of investment in flood management and value for money to the taxpayer."

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 28 October 2011

Notes for Editors

  • Over 5.2 million (one in six) properties in England are at risk of flooding from rivers, the sea, or surface water. The annual cost of flood damage in England is more than £1.1 billion and is expected to rise.
  • The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has policy responsibility for flood and coastal risk management. In 2010-11, it spent £664 million and gave 95 per cent of this (£629 million) to the Environment Agency. The Agency has operational responsibility for flood and coastal risk management. In addition, local authorities spent £101 million supported by revenue support grant on local flood risk management activity.
  • The NAO has previously reported, in 2007, on the Environment Agency's flood and coastal defence programme. In the same year, the Government commissioned a review by Sir Michael Pitt in response to the major summer floods. The Pitt Review, Learning lessons from the 2007 floods, June 2008, resulted in 92 recommendations aimed at clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the flood risk management authorities and improving delivery.
  • The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 is the Government's main legislative instrument to implement the Pitt Review. It makes the Agency the responsible body nationally for the strategic overview of flood risk management from all sources of flood risk; places new responsibilities on the 152 upper-tier local authorities (unitary and county councils) to strategically manage and coordinate local flood risk (from groundwater, surface water runoff and water courses other than main rivers and reservoirs); and places a duty on flood risk management authorities to cooperate and act consistently within the framework of local and national flood risk strategies.
  • Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  • The Comptroller and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 880 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.


Hana Esselink

PN: 58/11