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The Environment Agency has made a number of improvements in the management of flood risk since 2001. Despite this, the Agency has not met its target to maintain 63 per cent of England’s flood defence systems in their target condition.

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A report out today by the National Audit Office highlights a number of improvements to the management of flood risk made by the Environment Agency since the NAO last reported on this subject in 2001. The Agency has taken on greater oversight of flood risk in England, including the management of important rivers which were previously managed by local authorities and internal drainage boards. The Agency has protected more people by improving the standard of flood protection for 100,000 households between 2003-04 and 2005-06, improved its management of flood defence construction projects, and developed a more rigorous system for classifying, recording and monitoring the condition of flood defence assets.

But the report points out that, since 2001, general conditions of assets have not improved significantly, with 50 per cent of linear defences and 61 per cent of flood defence structures in good condition or better in 2007 compared to 64 per cent and 57 per cent respectively at the time of the NAO’s previous report. There are several reasons for this.

The number of recorded assets has increased significantly since 2001. And the Agency has adopted a risk based approach which sets less demanding condition targets for those assets considered lower risk. In practice, the Agency’s investigation of the autumn 2000 floods found that instances of flood defences failing were rare (less than one per cent of flooding was due to such instances).

Nevertheless, as today’s report notes, only 57 per cent of all flood risk asset systems, and 46 per cent of high risk systems, such as those protecting urban areas, had achieved their target condition by March 2007, with potential risks should a flood occur. Spending on locally managed construction and maintenance work continues to vary across the country and does not yet adequately reflect the risk of flooding in each region.

The Agency estimates it will need a further £150 million a year to bring all flood defence systems up to their target condition. The report concludes that there is some scope for the Agency to reduce the need for additional funding by improving cost effectiveness.

Many flood risk systems include assets which the Agency does not maintain. These assets are maintained by third parties such as local authorities and private owners. Although these assets tend to be in poorer condition, the report found that the Agency does not yet have a national policy for dealing with them.

The Agency’s local construction and maintenance regimes are responding to emerging issues such as the greater emphasis on high risk defences, but there are regional variations in the proportion of high risk systems at target condition (from 18 per cent in the South West to 60 per cent in the Southern region) and the proportion of maintenance funds directed at high risk systems (24 per cent in the North East compared to 67 per cent in the Midlands and Thames regions).

The Agency has improved risk management and cost control of major flood defence construction projects but the report identifies scope for further improvement in evaluating projects after their completion and streamlining the funding and approvals process.

The report identifies weaknesses in the Agency’s data systems. The Agency has substantially increased the number of assets recorded on its database, but records are not yet complete and other operating authorities are reluctant to use the system due to cost and technical difficulties. The Agency’s asset database was not designed as a work management system and cannot hold data on the maintenance history of each flood defence or clearly link asset inspection results to records of maintenance carried out. The Agency has taken steps to improve system performance but the database is still unwieldy when extracting large volumes of data.

“The Agency has made progress in improving how it manages England’s flood defences since I last reported in 2001. But climate change is likely to increase the number of homes and businesses at risk of flooding in the future.”

“If the Environment Agency has any chance of meeting its future targets it must now focus more consistently on improving the condition of its high risk flood defences. Its work in the best performing regions shows that this is possible.”

Sir John Bourn


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