After the drought, scientists warn of a looming flood crisis

Britain faces a serious risk of floods in the coming months according to experts who yesterday criticised the Government for cutting national funding for flood defences.

A combination of exceptionally high tides and the risk of autumn storms and heavy downpours could bring serious floods to many parts of the country at a time when anti-flood funding is being cut.

Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University, warned that government cuts indicated official complacency over a risk that could only increase with time. "The maintenance of flood defences should not be subject to political machinations and the reversal in funding sends out a dangerous sign of uncertainty," Professor Penning-Rowsell said. "People enjoying the beach this summer are probably not aware that our coast is in crisis. It is where the risks and dangers of flooding are increasing."

Last month the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told the Environment Agency to cut its £400m flood protection budget by £15m, which will affect future mapping for floods and improved warning systems. "I think it's to be regretted. It sends a signal that flood defence is an area that's liable for volatile budgets in the future," Professor Penning-Rowsell said at the Science Media Centre in London. "That's quite dangerous when you have to build and plan things for the next 50 years. Really what we need is certainty, long-term planning, and a secure financial framework," he said.

"We're playing catch-up to a certain extent and the trends to the distant future don't look at all promising. There is unease in the profession as to whether we are spending enough money to deal with the kind of problems climate change will create in 20 or 30 years."

The risk of flooding will be heightened by two exceptionally high tides, with the highest on 9 October. If they coincide with storm surges, severe coastal flooding is almost inevitable.

Jean Venables, vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and former chairman of a regional flood defence committee, said that three years ago the Government indicated that it would increase its investment in flood defences. "It's extremely disappointing for the Government to be reducing the budget for flood-risk management," Dr Venables said. "We need to look very hard at doing proper maintenance of flood defences. I'm very concerned that Defra has gone in the wrong direction." Rising sea levels and the increasing risk of heavy downpours or storm surges have raised the probabilities of severe flooding. Building on floodplains, such as the Thames Gateway scheme, was exacerbating the situation, the scientists said.

Professor Penning-Rowsell said that there were three major flooding threats. The first was to low-lying areas of the east coast of England, which was affected by rising sea levels. The second was to the Thames Valley, which was largely unprotected from flooding, and the third was to London, which was vulnerable to exceptionally heavy summer downpours that can overwhelm the city's Victorian drains.

A Defra spokesman said cuts to the Environment Agency's spending on floods only affected resources such as training and maintenance. It did not erode the capital budget used to build new flood defences.