Top Defra adviser: break up Environment Agency after flooding

Dieter Helm, chair of the advisory Natural Capital Committee, urges creation of a new "smaller, more tightly focussed Environment Protection agency"

By Matt Foster

06 Jan 2016

A leading government adviser has called for the “poorly managed and poorly focussed” Environment Agency to be broken up following the latest devastating flooding to hit the UK.

Ministers on Monday revealed that about 17,000 properties had been affected by flooding in the north of England between Christmas and New Year, prompted by what the Met Office said had been the wettest month for the UK in more than a century.

Economist Dieter Helm – who was in December reappointed by environment secretary Liz Truss to lead the advisory Natural Capital Committee – said the response of the EA to the December flood had demonstrated the shortcomings of the current flooding protection model.

Helm called for a “fundamental restructuring of the institutional architecture” for flooding, arguing that the Environment Agency’s responsibility for the policy area as well as its wider remit to safeguard the environment had only come about through a “cobbling together” of pre-existing agencies.

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“Unfortunately in the recent Triennial Review of the EA, the opportunity to create a smaller, more tightly focussed Environment Protection agency, sheared of its operational activities, was missed,” Helm wrote in a policy paper published this week. “The recent flood gives further opportunity to rethink this error, and to create a separate flood defence body.”

Helm said that the current reliance of the EA on funding agreed with the Treasury meant it could “never deliver” the levels of protection required, and called instead for a new agency to be established with greater freedom to raise money to invest in defences.

He added: “A new floods utility would not necessarily be a private company. It could be state-owned, though it might need a company structure so that it could be subject to the normal accounting and legal frameworks, and have a balance sheet separate from that of the Treasury.”

Environment Agency chair Sir Philip Dilley and the organisation’s chief executive Sir James Bevan will appear before MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee on Wednesday afternoon to answer questions about the government’s response to the latest flooding. 

Helm accused the government of relying for too long on a “sticking plaster” approach, handing more funding to the EA in the wake of flooding and offering emergency aid to those affected, which he argued could create “perverse incentives” by failing to dissuade developers from building on flood plains.

And he said that ministers now faced a choice between either trying to improve the EA’s management or opting to “seize the opportunity to radically rethink and restructure flood defences in the UK”.

“If it takes the former route, ministers will need to keep spare sets of wellington boots at the ready for future flood emergencies and crises, and householders can expect more scenes like those in the Somerset Levels, in Cumbria, York and elsewhere to reoccur – again and again. It if takes the latter route it can sort out flood defences for a generation.”

Addressing the Commons on Tuesday, Truss, the environment secretary, said flood defences had protected more than 20,000 properties during December and paid tribute to the “tireless work of the emergency services, the military, the Environment Agency, council workers and other responders and volunteers”.

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