Flood defence inadequate, ministers told months ago

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The Independent Online

The government was warned five months ago that it needed to increase by at least 50 per cent the amount spent annually on flood defence, The Independent has learnt.

The government was warned five months ago that it needed to increase by at least 50 per cent the amount spent annually on flood defence, The Independent has learnt.

Without the extra money, the sort of chaos that is gripping much of Britain was inevitable, according to a report to ministers last June from Britain's leading flood experts.

The report said the current level of annual expenditure of approximately £200m needed to be raised to between £300m and £340m. Without such an increase, annual flood damage would be likely to treble from £600m to £1.8bn.

Disclosure of the warning will be embarrassing to the Government, already under fire over fuel tax duty and the chaotic state of the railways. While ministers have been prepared to accept some responsibility for these matters, they have presented the floods as an unavoidable natural disaster.

With today's expected downpours again threatening to breach battered flood defences across the country, the Conservative Party's environment spokesman Archie Norman said last night: "John Prescott said that these floods should be a wake-up call for the whole country. The report suggests that the Government should have been awake to this problem quite some time ago."

The study, "National Appraisal of Assets at Risk from Flooding and Coastal Erosion", bluntly warns the Government of the consequences of not raising flood defence spending.

"Failure to do so will inevitably lead to an increase in economic damages year by year, ie when a significant event occurs, such as in 1953 or 1998, the extent of area affected and the resulting losses/damage could potentially be catastrophic unless other action is taken," it says.

The study was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and produced by two leading water-engineering consultancies, Halcrow Marine and HR Wallingford, in co-operation with the Flood Hazard Research Centre of the University of Middlesex.

It points out that 10 per cent of the population and 12 per cent of agricultural land in England are in flood-risk areas - comprising property worth more than £200bn and land worth more than £7bn. With no flood defences at all, it says, the annual cost of flood damage would be almost £3bn.

"Continuing to invest at present levels of approximately £0.2bn a year will result in increasing annual average damage eventually reaching some £1.8bn a year," it says.

Elliot Morley, the minister responsible for flood precautions, disputed the report's conclusions last night. "This year we are going to spend £400m on defences, which is more than recommended by the report," he said. "In some parts of the country there is no obvious engineering solution. You can't surround everything in walls of concrete. We are on the ball on this. We have not been caught out."

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, visited flood-hit areas of Yorkshire yesterday, promising residents a new national recovery team would speed up their flood damage claims. In York, he expanded on Saturday's announcement of an extra £51m for flood defence.

He said the country now had to accept that climate change would mean extreme weather happened more frequently and he wanted to ensure the infrastructure was there to cope with it. "People tend to think this is going to come every 20 or 30 years. Climate change is making a fundamental difference. Since 1987 there have been three major floodings and they are becoming more frequent," he said.

Homeowners and rescue services across England are bracing themselves today for further mass evacuations and severe flooding resulting from heavy downpours expected to be brought in by another deep depression sweeping in from the Atlantic.