Background to the report

Flooding and coastal erosion put lives, livelihoods and people’s well-being at risk. Flooding can affect food production and destroy natural habitats. In February 2022, the country experienced three named storms (Dudley, Eunice and Franklin) in one week for the first time. More than 370 properties were affected, mainly by river flooding. In July 2021, parts of London received a month’s rain within a couple of hours. More than 1,500 properties suffered from surface water flooding as a result.

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More recently, heavy, persistent and widespread rain affected much of England when Storms Babet and Ciaran struck in October and November 2023. The Met Office reported that 18th to 20th October was the third wettest independent three-day period for England and Wales in a series dating back to 1891. The Environment Agency (EA) reported that, by the end of October, Storm Babet alone had caused 2,200 homes to be flooded.

There are four main sources of flood risk: rivers; the sea; surface water (when rainwater cannot drain away); and groundwater (where the water table level rises above ground).

EA estimates that, in 2022-23, approximately 5.7 million properties in England were at risk from flooding. This figure has increased by around 500,000 between 2021-22 and 2022-23. EA reports that this is due to a better understanding of the level of risk, through improved information, rather than an increase in risk. There is also risk to transport and utilities infrastructure from flooding. The Met Office’s UK climate projections show UK average temperatures increasing and sea levels rising. Its projections indicate more extreme weather events, including more intense rainfall. This, when combined with other factors such as more housing development, will increase flooding risks if mitigating actions are not taken.

Scope of the report

We last reported on government’s management of flood risk in November 2020. In this report, we look at the government’s long-term ambition “to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk” and, in the more immediate term, whether Defra and EA are delivering value for money after two years of the capital programme. To do this, we have assessed Defra’s progress against the backdrop of its 2020 policy statement and EA’s 2020 strategy. We also assess EA’s performance in maintaining existing flood defence assets.

The report covers:

  • the government’s long-term ambition and objectives and Defra’s governance, understanding and management of flood risk
  • progress on the capital programme to build new flood defences and risks to future delivery
  • EA’s performance in maintaining flood defence assets

While this report looks at aspects of the effectiveness of the overall delivery landscape for flood risk management, we did not audit local authorities or other risk management authorities. We did, however, seek their views on a range of issues. Managing flooding and coastal erosion in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is devolved to the respective administrations and is therefore not within the scope of this report.


To combat the growing dangers from flooding, the government has doubled its capital funding in England for the six years to 2027. To manage the larger capital programme and record levels of investment, Defra has intensified its scrutiny and is taking steps with EA to develop a more granular understanding of flood risk.

However, the capital funding is forecast to deliver protection to far fewer properties by 2027 than was promised when the capital programme was launched. Due to underspending in the first two years of the programme, EA will need to achieve record levels of investment in the remaining four years of the programme to spend the full £5.2 billion allocated to the programme. There is a risk that value for money will be further eroded if projects are accelerated or new projects are introduced too quickly to meet this level of investment.

On top of this, EA’s maintenance of its assets is not optimising value for money. For the lack of £34 million in annual maintenance funding for 2022-23, more than 200,000 properties are at increased risk of flooding. At the same time, EA underspent by £310 million in the first two years of the capital programme. Neither Defra nor EA assessed whether using some of this underspend to meet the shortfall in its maintenance budget in 2022-23 would have provided better value for money than deferring it to later in the capital programme.

The government acknowledges that building new flood defences and maintaining existing ones is no longer enough and that a wider range of interventions is now needed to build resilience against increasing flood risk. Although the government’s vision for flood resilience stretches to the year 2100 and EA has a number of strategic objectives for 2050, it has not set a target for the level of flood resilience it expects to achieve and has not mapped out any solid plans beyond 2026 to bridge the gap between its shorter-term actions and long-term objectives. This will make it difficult for the government to make rational and informed decisions about its priorities, measure its progress or plan effective investment for the long term.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (15 Nov 2023)

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