Builders will be forced to pay for flood defences

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Builders will have to pay to defend new homes from flooding under rules being drawn up by ministers in the wake of last week's flooding in the south-east.

Builders will have to pay to defend new homes from flooding under rules being drawn up by ministers in the wake of last week's flooding in the south-east.

The rules, to be published before Christmas, will also lay down that there should be no new houses in areas at serious risk of inundation and will require local authorities to recognise the important role of undisturbed flood-plains and wetlands as a form of flood defence.

The Environment Agency, which is in charge of flood control in England and Wales, wants ministers to go even further and ban all building on the flood-plains that cover one-tenth of the country, except in exceptional circumstances.

The new rules are designed to end a situation where housebuilders have built widely on cheap flat land that is prone to flooding, despite official advice not to do so.

Experts estimate that half the house building since the Second World War has been imprudently sited on areas naturally prone to flooding. The Environment Agency objects to 30,000 planning applications in flood-prone areas every year, but one in five of them are nevertheless approved by local authorities.

Scores of people remained homeless yesterday after parts of Sussex and Kent suffered their worst flooding in 40 years.

Experts are predicting that the floods will leave a repair bill of £4bn. River levels in some areas were the highest ever recorded, the Environment Agency said.

Details of the new building rules are still under discussion, but the latest confidential draft requires councils to take into account "the susceptibility of land to flooding" in deciding whether to give planning permission and lays down that land which cannot be defended against inundation should not be developed.

The rules emphasise the importance of flood-plains and wetlands, which act as vital safety valves for floodwater, and say that builders must pay to provide flood defences, which are at present financed from the public purse.

They will also lay down that all new developments, wherever they are, must be designed to minimise the risk of rainwater pouring off them and causing floods downstream.

The rules are expected to be tightened even further after last week's floods, and ministers are ready to enforce them by calling in and deciding on planning applications that violate them. But the Environment Agency wants them to go further and ban all building on flood-plains except where there are compelling reasons for it.

"It is crazy to put more people at risk," says Geoff Mance, director of water management at the agency. "We can never afford to build defences that will give 100 per cent protection. There will always be a flood that goes over the top."

The agency has drawn up detailed maps of the eight to nine per cent of the country most at risk of flooding, and it wants the Government to use these to define the areas where building should, in effect, be banned.

Mr Mance believes that the Government's plans are "still biased in favour of the developers".

Yesterday, water levels were still too high to begin pumping in many areas, including Yalding, Kent, where homes and shops were inundated after the River Medway burst its banks. Although severe flood warnings are still in force for the Medway, conditions are expected to improve if the weather remains dry as forecast. Nearby Maidstone remains on severe flood alert.

In Lewes, East Sussex, one of the hardest hit areas, the Environment Agency has begun pumping contaminated water into tankers before clearing homes and businesses in the low-lying areas of town.