MPs warn of 'inadequate' flood cash

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The amount of money pledged by the Government to prevent a repeat of last summer's devastating floods is "inadequate", MPs warned today.

The Environment Select Committee said the infrastructure to deal with the kind of flooding witnessed across parts of England in June and July was in "an unclear and chaotic state".

The public would not forgive the Government if its response to the disaster was not "comprehensive and well funded", the committee's chairman Michael Jack warned.

The committee said ministers had repeatedly suggested that the £800m a year for flood management by 2010/2011 would allow the Government to deal effectively with flooding in the future.

But a report from the Efra committee warned the settlement under the Comprehensive Spending Review was "far less impressive under close analysis" and not sufficient to deal with traditional and new flooding threats.

The committee said it had been told the £800m figure was heavily influenced by a 2004 Foresight Report which recommended a spend of £1bn annually by 2015 - but only for coastal and river flooding.

Current flood defences focus almost entirely on river and coastal flooding but some two thirds of the floods last June and July were caused by surface water, often following heavy rainfall.

Some of the areas hit by the floods in Yorkshire and Humberside, the Midlands and the West Country were ones not previously thought to be at risk and were therefore ill-prepared.

No organisation has overall responsibility for surface water flooding at a national or local level, nobody was responsible for issuing flood warnings and it was unclear who was responsible for overflowing drains, the MPs said.

Some 13 people lost their lives in the floods, 44,600 homes and 7,100 businesses were flooded and £3 billion of damage was caused.

The events of last summer also highlighted the vulnerability of key infrastructure, such as power stations, the report said.

The MPs recommended that the Environment Agency should take a strategic role in dealing with surface water flooding nationally, providing advice and guidance to local authorities who should have a statutory duty to deal with surface drainage.

Recommendations from the MPs also included automatic registering of households for flood warnings in high risk areas with an "opt-out" approach, rather than the current "opt-in" system.

And the committee's chairman Michael Jack said Sir Michael Pitt should be appointed as the EA's "flood supremo" to insure his independent review commissioned by the Government into the flooding was implemented.

The report backed his recommendations that all new buildings on flood plains should be properly flood-resistant.

But it warned the Pitt Review may not be implemented unless the Government addressed an engineering skills shortage in the sector.

The committee also said the Government needed to explain how it would fund implementing Sir Michael's recommendations if costs exceed the £34.5m already set aside for that purpose.

Mr Jack said: "The public will not forgive the Government if it is not seen to be responding to the lessons learnt from the floods of last summer.

"Our report has shown how confused and chaotic was the infrastructure when it came to preventing and dealing with surface water flooding.

"The Government must bring clarity to this situation so that the public, wherever they live, can have peace of mind that every effort is being made to avoid a repeat of the fiasco of last summer.

"The Government will not be easily forgiven if their response to last summer's events are not seen as comprehensive and well funded."

But individuals also have some responsibility for dealing with surface water flooding, the MPs said.

They welcomed Government plans to ban the paving over of front gardens with non-porous materials without planning permission.

A spokeswoman for Defra said: "Last month, Sir Michael said strong progress was being made on the majority of these recommendations and that the country is therefore already better prepared for future flooding emergencies.

"The Government recognises just how important sorting out urban drainage is, which is why we are already consulting on who should take the lead on this and clarifying responsibilities in this area.

"In addition, in response to one of the urgent recommendations from Sir Michael, the Environment Agency has been working with local authorities and others to identify areas at highest risk from surface water flooding and the aim is to have an initial indication of areas that may, in certain circumstances, be prone to surface water flooding.

"The Government recognises we need to spend more on flood defences, which is why we have more than doubled the spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management in cash terms, to an estimated £650m this year, rising to £800m in 2010/2011."

The Local Government Association said the Government should introduce legal requirements forcing water companies to co-operate with local authorities to fight flooding.

Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA environment board, said: "The current system is fundamentally flawed. We simply cannot continue to have a situation where it is not clear who is responsible for dealing with vitally important functions such as drainage.

"There are glaring gaps in this country's readiness to cope with widespread and prolonged flooding. Last summer's floods were no fluke, and we run the real risk of witnessing a repeat - or worse - unless urgent action is taken now.

"We need to get back to basics. There should be no opt-out, no excuses and clear penalties for anybody who refuses to co-operate with managing our water systems.

"Councils should be allowed to start banging heads together so we can be better prepared to protect people and property."

Shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth said: "The floods last summer revealed institutional confusion and this report shows that without decisive action the Government is sleepwalking the country into another flooding disaster.

"With climate change and increased risk of flooding, the Government cannot simply cross its fingers and hope that we don't have a repeat of last year's rainfall.

"The state of our flood defences present serious cause for concern and with 6,500 households still unable to return home after last year's floods, there is little hope we are better prepared for further flooding."

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Steve Webb said the current levels of funding for flooding were "totally inadequate".

"The ABI, the Government's own Foresight report and the agency responsible for flood defences are all calling for spending to be increased to £1 billion, but their advice is falling on deaf ears.

"The £200m increase the Government announced last year does not stand up to scrutiny when inflation and rising costs in the building trade are taken into consideration.

"It is too little to cope with the increasing risks the country faces, and doesn't even come fully into effect for another two years," he warned.

The Association of British Insurers' (ABI) director general Stephen Haddrill said despite last year's disaster, the UK remained ill-prepared for coping with a major flood.

"As the Committee recommends, the Government should review the adequacy of its current flood spending plans."

Mr Haddrill also said: "We need a Floods Bill in the forthcoming Queen's Speech to clarify flood management responsibility, and to ensure we effectively manage the flood risk."

He said the problem of surface water flooding could not be tackled without such a Bill, which would need to give the Environment Agency strategic responsibility for all flooding, and local authorities responsibility, power and money to manage local surface water.