Ministers will allow thousands of new homes in flood zones

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The Government's response to the floods has been criticised as it prepares to give the go-ahead for hundreds of thousands of new homes to be built in areas at risk of flooding.

A Green Paper on housing to be published today will say it is not realistic to prevent building in places likely to be hit by floods because 10 per cent of England's housing and population is already in "at risk" areas. But it will call on local authorities to take account of the increased flood risk caused by the changing climate.

The document will spell out how the Government intends to meet Gordon Brown's pledge for another three million homes by 2020. About £8bn of taxpayers' money will be spent on providing 70,000 affordable new homes each year, mostly for rent from councils or housing associations.

There will be cash rewards for local authorities which provide more homes and penalties for those which fail to identify sites for housebuilding.

Opposition politicians claimed the Government had been slow to react to heavy rain that had been forecast days earlier and called for better communication between the co-ordinating bodies.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, said: "The Met Office warned earlier this week of heavy rainfall but ministers did not put the public on alert. The Government has been far too slow to wake up to the potentially devastating effects of extreme rainfall overwhelming drains and sewers."

He said the Government had not yet honoured a commitment it made at the start of 2005 to give the Environment Agency an overarching role on flooding by the end of 2006.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, who called for a public inquiry, said: " We need concerted action from the Government. We need to look at how they deal with floods, and also the co-ordination of the emergency response."

Whitehall officials attended a meeting of Cobra, the Government's emergency committee, yesterday as Mr Brown received regular reports from Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, who visited flood-hit areas.

In a televised statement at Chequers, Mr Brown insisted: "We have acted quickly in what is an emergency. When you have a situation where a month's rain is coming down and a month's water is being created in an hour or two, then people have to act very quickly." Last night Downing Street announced that Mr Brown would be visiting the affected areas today.

The Prime Minister said he was determined to see co-ordination between the transport and environment departments and local government stepped up. In the long term, the Government would ensure that infrastructure was "in such a position that we can deal with these emergencies in the future". He promised that councils would receive 100 per cent compensation for clean-up work, up from the previous 85 per cent.

The National Flood Forum, which helps flood victims, said the Government should pause before going ahead with new housing developments.

A government-commissioned report by the planning experts Roger Tym & Partners said the risk of flooding would increase in south Hampshire, the Sussex coast, central Oxfordshire and the Kent Thames Gateway, where new homes were likely to be built.

Baroness Young, who chairs the Environment Agency, called for a debate on the level of flood risk householders should face. She said there had been "30 years of inappropriate development in the flood plain in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, and we are seeing much more severe weather patterns."

Mr Benn said that consideration would be given to improving flood defences in new housing developments.