Thousands of English flood defences ‘deemed unfit for purpose’

Environment Agency inspectors find 3,460 barriers carried defects leaving them effectively useless in 2019/20, the consequence of years of battering by heavy rainfall

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Monday 25 January 2021 13:32
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Related video: Storm Christoph brings snow and flooding across Greater Manchester

An estimated 3,460 of the UK’s “high consequence” flood defences were in such a state of disrepair in 2020 they were deemed unfit for purpose, according to Environment Agency inspectors.

A report based on freedom of information requests made by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace, in partnership with The Guardian, found that 6 per cent of the UK’s flood prevention barriers and embankments – or one in 20 – were judged to be in so poor a condition in 2019/20 as to be effectively useless, the consequence of years of battering by heavy rainfall.

As many as one in 10 flood defences in regions like Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Shropshire were considered to be in poor shape in the period when the inspections were carried out, according to the report.

The onset of Storm Christoph this January has meant that many of those same counties in central northern England, the Midlands and Wales endured fresh flooding last week, notably in towns and villages along the River Severn.

Approximately 600 houses were flooded when two months’ worth of rain fell in 48 hours in some areas, with melting snowfall and ice expected to place further strain on defences in the week ahead.

“The poor state of so many critical flood defences in England is putting thousands of people and homes at risk. This is unacceptable,” said Doug Barr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist and policy director.

“We know that the climate crisis is making our winters wetter, increasing the risk of floods across the country. We’ve had warning of the climate threat for years so there’s no excuse for not being prepared.”

The Environment Agency said repairs had been prioritised in areas at greatest risk over the last year in response to the findings.

“We maintain approximately 78,000 flood assets across England, 95 per cent of which are in good condition and repairs are prioritised where there is significant threat to lives and livelihoods,” a spokesman said.

Of the 3,460 defences about which concern was raised, 791 were rated “very poor”, meaning they had “severe defects resulting in complete performance failure”, while the remaining 2,669 were in “poor” condition, indicating their defects would “significantly reduce” their performance.

Major flooding events were expected once every 15 to 20 years in the 20th century but global warming has meant that forecast has shortened to once every two to five years over the course of the last decade.

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