Millions of homeowners living near the sea or rivers face being hit with a new "flood tax" under controversial coalition plans to plug a £260m shortfall in spending on flood defences. The controversial proposal comes as the residents of Cumbria prepare to mark the anniversary of the floods which devastated the Lake District last year.
The Independent on Sunday has learned water minister Richard Benyon believes the cost of protecting homes and businesses from the elements should be "shared" between the government and those who benefit from defences directly. From April 2012, the government wants to see a new structure in place which combines public and private funding.
In return for paying the levy – which would be on top of higher insurance premiums already imposed on flood risk areas - local communities would get a greater say in which areas are protected. A consultation on the idea is scheduled to be launched this week, despite coinciding with the first anniversary of the Cumbria floods.
In November 2009 record rainfall caused rivers and streams in the region to flood streets, engulfing homes and businesses and displacing hundreds of residents, some of whom have still not been able to return to their homes.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took a 29 per cent budget cut in George Osborne's Comprehensive Spending Review. It included cutting £110m from planned capital expenditure on new flood defences. The total budget for all flooding and coastal erosion will fall by £260m to £2.1bn over the next four years. Defra insists flood risk management is a "priority".
To help make up the shortfall, the costs will be shared between the Treasury and those who most benefit from flood defences. According to the Environment Agency, one in six homes – some 2.4m properties - in England is at risk of flooding but only half know they are living in a danger area.
Labour MP Tony Cunningham, whose Workington constituency bore the brunt of the Cumbria floods in November last year, said the prospect of people living there facing extra costs would "go down like a lead balloon".
"The anniversary of the floods will be marked particularly poignantly because we had the police officer killed. In the midst of this, for Defra to be thinking of announcing we may have to pay more, will go down extremely badly."
A candlelit vigil will be held on Saturday (20th) to mark the anniversary of the death of PC Bill Barker, who was swept into the River Derwent and killed when the bridge he was manning collapsed.
"The reality is money spent on flood defences saves throughout the country hundreds of millions of pounds in the long-term. At a time of climate change, to be cutting the budget is just nonsensical," said Mr Cunningham.
Deb Muscat, Grants Officer at the Cumbria Community Foundation (CCF), said: "It is a year later and we are still giving grants to people suffering from the floods on a daily basis. There are people who still aren't back in their houses. They've had disputes with their insurance companies, or builders. "
The CCF has given grants of up to £2000 to more than 1000 households over the past year. More than £2.8 million was raised in response to the 2009 floods, the first million of which was donated in 10 days.
Wot Blowers, 62, Self-employed gardener from Cockermouth
I'm going to move into my house tomorrow, a year after I moved out of it.
My house is on Gote Road, and was on the news all the time last year as it got the worst of the flooding. For nearly a month I was in a hostel, which was stressful. I didn't have any things at all. Everything was still in the house.
After a month I was rehoused, in a house 7 miles out of Cockermouth. The house is fine but I miss my friends and neighbours. Dealing with the insurance companies and bureaucracy was harder than the floods. Everything seemed to take so long.
After the floods there was a big freeze and the builder was stuck in his village and couldn't get on with the work, then all the work had to be done in stages. I had buildings insurance but not contents insurance, so I've had to cash in my pension to pay for the fridge, cooker, furniture, everything. It has cost about £30,000 to put the house back together.
My insurance company will still insure me now, but the premiums are ten times higher so I can't afford it. It does worry me, as although a flood is a freak event you can't guarantee it won't happen again.