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A National Audit Office report today highlights research by MAFF that up to two million homes and buildings in England are in areas at risk of flooding. The key points in the report to Parliament by NAO head Sir John Bourn are that:

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  • while flood defences can reduce the risk or extent of damage, they cannot prevent all flooding, as seen in late 2000;
  • awareness of flood risk – among the five million people who live or work in areas at risk, those responsible for flood defence activity and those planning to build in areas at risk – can be the single most important defence against the worst effects of flooding; research by the Environment Agency before the late 2000 floods showed that two in five households at risk did not know if their insurance would cover them in a flood;
  • when reviewing the lessons to be learned from the floods of late 2000, all agencies responsible for flood defences should consider whether the division of responsibility and the way permissive powers operate increase the risks of suffering flood damage for some people; they also need to do further work to explore whether the basis for categorisation of main and non-main rivers leads to inadequate and inconsistent levels of flood defence service across different parts of the country; and
  • a condition survey (completed in 2000) of the Agency’s flood defence structures and linear barriers showed a substantial proportion in a less than good condition and significant regional variations.

The report acknowledges that the Environment Agency has, since its establishment in 1996, made considerable progress on behalf of regional and local flood defence committees: for example, in developing a flood warning strategy; and in improving the quality and coverage of flood risk mapping and of defences. However, the Agency is not responsible for all flood defences.

The recent floods demonstrated the serious consequences which flooding can have for people and their property – 11,000 people were requested to evacuate their homes or businesses and 10,000 properties were flooded.

Current inland and coastal flood defences are estimated to reduce the annual cost of damage as a result of flooding by over £2 billion. To that extent, the annual investment by flood defence bodies of some £400 million represents good value for money. However, a survey of the Environment Agency’s flood defences showed some 43 per cent of structures and 36 per cent of linear barriers in England are in a fair, poor or very poor state, and that there are significant variations between regions. Surveys of assets managed by others were not yet complete.

The large number of organisations involved in the provision of flood defence (including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Environment Agency, 235 Internal Drainage Boards, 9 Regional and 11 Local Flood Defence Committees and all local authorities) means that the extent of joined up working required to protect those at risk represents a massive challenge.

Sir John identified four priority tasks for those delivering the flood defence service.

  • The development over the coming years of strategic plans for all river catchments. These plans are fundamental to the long term upgrading of flood defences to take account of local conditions, existing risks and defences, and the impact of changes in sea level, climate and rainfall.
  • Completing and modifying flood risk maps and considering how the costs may be shared by developers – recent floods have raised concerns that further or inappropriate development in the floodplain will lead to more extensive flooding.
  • Surveys of flood defences need to be completed to clarify whether remedial work is required, where defences in areas of risk may not provide the level of safety residents believe there to be.
  • Benchmarking and economic evaluation of maintenance of defences is important because of its contribution to the quality of flood defences and the possible scope for identifying savings and releasing resources for other defence work.

Sir John commented:

“Changes in climate and rainfall patterns over the next 50 years are expected to lead to an increased risk of flooding. Many houses and businesses have been, and more are likely to be, built in the flood plains. It is essential that those people whose properties could be affected by flooding are aware of the dangers, that they know what to do in an emergency, and that they know who is responsible for defence measures.

” Furthermore, all of the bodies involved in flood defence work must be thoroughly joined up to ensure that the complicated arrangements and sharing of responsibility do not absorb energy and resources that might otherwise be devoted to planning and implementing flood defences.”


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