The NAO describes Defra and the EA’s processes for prioritising flood protection maintenance spend as “robust” in its ‘Strategic Flood Risk Management’ report, released today, but also draws attention to the shortfall in funding for the department - whose partnership funding model will have to generate an additional £140m by March 2015.
According to the report, central government funding for flood risk management fell by 18% for capital and 10% for revenue between 2010-11 and 2013-14. This was partly countered when, during the winter floods of 2014, central government gave Defra an emergency bailout of £270m.
The findings come less than a year after communities secretary Eric Pickles criticised the EA’s response to the floods and pledged long-term capital investment for flood defences, after taking charge of the government response in February of this year. Speaking at the House of Commons in February, Pickles said: “Looking further forward we have made an unprecedented long term commitment of six years of capital investment in improving defences."
The NAO report states: “Annually, [Defra] undertakes an exercise to allocate funding for asset maintenance, using its national database of maintenance needs. The [Environment] Agency fully funds the minimum maintenance needs for all assets, and further funding is then allocated according to benefit–cost priority for each asset system.”
Public Affairs Committee chair Margaret Hodge has commented that “minimum” maintenance on flood protection is insufficient, saying: “I am deeply concerned that current levels of spending are not enough to maintain flood protection.”
The report flags that 5m properties are at risk of flooding, as of December 2013. The details of flood risk should be published, Hodge has urged: “It is extraordinary that after cutting maintenance for half (1,356) of its flood protection assets to the bare minimum, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not let communities know their local risk of flooding.”
The NAO says in the report that Defra’s benefit to cost ratio is £9.5 benefit for every £1 spent; but the independent government advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), commented in a blog on the matter that while the high benefit “appears to be a positive outcome”, it is in fact a “symptom of under-investment”.
The NAO is also acutely aware of the impact benefit-cost prioritising has on areas deemed to be at low risk: “In the areas where maintenance of flood defences has been given a lower priority – typically, where there are few homes – this will increase the danger of deterioration of defences, thereby increasing flood risk.”
Daniel Johns, head of adaptation at CCC adds: “The less the Environment Agency are given to spend, the better value for money they will achieve, as only the very best projects would be affordable.”