‘Scandal brewing’ over new homes on flood plains, MPs warn

Public Accounts Committee says Defra and Environment Agency lack clear picture on quality of defence measures
Flooding at Fishlake, near Doncaster, in 2019. Photo: PA

By Jim Dunton

01 Mar 2021

Watchdog MPs have warned that a scandal is brewing over the construction of new homes in areas prone to flooding that could be the successor to the building regulations failings exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire.

Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said the impacts of climate change could already be seen on existing flood defences and that – despite the obvious risks – the Environment Agency expected a 50% increase in the number of homes built on flood plains in the coming decades.

The PAC acknowledged that the agency was working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on planning reforms needed to mitigate the risk of building on flood plains. 

But it said councils had responsibility for surface-water flooding, which was made worse by development in urban areas, and that “scarce local authority resources” coupled with low levels of private-sector investment were “hampering” England’s flooding response.

MPs warned that neither the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs nor the Environment Agency understood enough about the significant decline in the proportion of flood investment going to deprived areas, or the “wide variation” in investment across regions.

They called on Defra to strengthen its scrutiny of the Environment Agency “immediately” and for both to increase their efforts to understand which local authority areas faced the biggest funding shortfalls for flooding-prevention work.

MPs also said Defra should work with MHCLG to look at ways property developers could guarantee that new homes in flood-prone areas could be insured,  and to ensure that those who stood to profit from building new homes in flood plains also contributed to flood-mitigation measures. 

Additionally, the committee said Defra and MHCLG should consider changes to building regulations to include mandatory flood-protection measures – such as raised electrical sockets, fuse boxes and sealed floors – in new-build homes.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said damaging floods were becoming more and more frequent and climate change meant extreme flooding events were not going to just go away. 

“With public finances stretched to the limit, government and the Environment Agency have to do more to make sure limited funds for flood defence and risk management are spent effectively,” she said.

“The risks to our homes, businesses, national infrastructure, food supply and whole ecosystems are not even being properly monitored, much less strategically mitigated.

“You can see the next major housing and building regulations scandal brewing here – the government is simply not doing enough to protect the UK’s current housing stock from floods or stepping in to prevent new homes being built on flood plains, and more needs to be done to tackle the prohibitive home insurance costs that result.”

A government spokesperson said £5.2bn was being invested in 2,000 new flood and coastal defences between 2021-27, better protecting 336,000 properties and building on “significant progress” already made to respond to climate change.

“We are making sure support is targeted where it is needed most with households in the most deprived areas of England qualifying for funding at over twice the rate of the least deprived areas,” the spokesperson added.

“We are also consulting on changes to Flood Re, to increase the availability and affordability of flood insurance for homes affected by flooding.”

Flood Re is a joint initiative between the government and the insurance industry that aims to make the flood-cover element of household insurance more affordable. 

Catherine Wright, the Environment Agency’s acting executive director for flood and coastal risk management, agreed with the MPs’ finding that long-term investment was required to both build and maintain flood defences in the face of increased risks posed by the climate emergency.

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