You're on your own, flood towns are told

Protective measures are too expensive for many places, says the Environment Agency
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The Independent Online

Historic towns and villages have been warned that there is no way of protecting them from floods such as those that devastated Britain last year.

The Government's Environment Agency (EA) has concluded that there is little or nothing it can do for towns such as Uckfield, Lewes, Ironbridge and Yalding without destroying listed buildings or encasing them in concrete.

There is no additional help on offer for York, even though the city centre came within two inches of inundation last year, and Stratford-upon-Avon will get new flood defences only if the proposed redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Company's theatre goes ahead.

"There are not going to be solutions for all these locations," the agency admitted. This is despite the £106m flood defence package announced last week.

The AA warned yesterday that long-term flood damage to Britain's roads was responsible for an increase in the number of accidents across the country. Last year's widespread flooding caused severe damage to the foundations and surface quality of many roads, and several are still in need of extensive work.

Over the past 12 months the Environment Agency has been investigating 600 flood-prone places. Breaches in defences have been repaired so that they are back to the condition they were in just before last year's floods.

But many towns remain in danger. In Lewes, East Sussex, which saw some of the worst of the destruction, the EA needs to widen the river Ouse by 17 metres – a plan that will meet fierce opposition because it means destroying listed buildings along the river bank. An alternative is to build flood defences upstream, but that would mean more flooding for the picturesque hamlet of Barcombe.

"If you were building Lewes now, you wouldn't build it there," said the agency. "There are quite a lot of places around the country like that."

The EA has concluded that the only answer to the persistent flooding at Yalding, Kent, where three rivers meet, is to turn the village into a fortress. "You can't just build flood defences to solve the problem here without encasing the whole place in high concrete walls, which is not a practicable thing to do," said a spokeswoman.

The people of Leamington Spa have been told there will be no new flood defences, because the cost is too great. In Uckfield, the only clear answer – widening the river Uck – means re-routing the railway line and demolishing commercial properties.

Hertfordshire and East Anglia also saw further flooding last week. Nigel Woonton, an EA flood manager for the region said that, in many cases, there was nothing to be done to prevent the problem.

"People really want reassurance that it won't happen again. Unfortunately there are some locations where it's totally impractical to provide defences and that reassurance can't be given," he said.

Last week the agency announced that towns on the river Severn, such as Shrewsbury and Bewdley, will in future be protected by temporary steel barriers to raise the height of the river bank, a system used in Germany. But this is not suitable for areas where flooding happens with little warning.

Longer-term plans to prevent flooding are under way with schemes for places such as Malton, Norton, and Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. But it often takes two or three years to design such schemes, put them out to consultation, receive local comment, obtain planning permission, and buy land. Then it might take the same time again to build them.

The Treasury and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are about to publish proposals to speed up the process, but there is still a money shortage.

The EA was given an extra £30m for flood defence works this year – but the Government itself has estimated that a further £100m a year will be needed to begin to get to grips with the backlog of deterioration caused by decades of under investment. In March, the National Audit Office concluded that almost half of England's flood defences, protecting two million homes and buildings, were in poor condition.

At the firm of Wynne Baxter, solicitors, on Lewes High Street, the sandbags are already stacked up at the rear of the building – only yards from the banks of the river Ouse.

"We're just a few short weeks into autumn and there have already been flood warnings," said Chris Coopey, 42, the partnership secretary. "It's been a resounding 'you're on your own, chaps' from the Environment Agency.

"They are effectively blighting a whole town. Lots of businesses can't get insurance at all now, and those insurers who are renewing policies are doing so at a much higher rate. There's a lot of politics in this and I don't know why. Lewes is being sold down the river. If the flooding happens again, it could kill the town."

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thompson, Lindsey Kingston, Alex Davidson and Stacy Coronis.