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English Flood Defences

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following widespread flood damage caused by both storm Babet and Ciarán, what action they are taking to ensure all English flood defences are fit for purpose.

My Lords, the Government are working closely with the Environment Agency and other relevant authorities to ensure that flood defences impacted by recent flooding are repaired. Following Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán, more than 14,000 inspections of flood protection assets have been conducted, with action taken wherever performance was compromised. We have allocated more than £200 million a year for the maintenance of flood defences and aim to achieve getting 94% to 95% of flood-risk assets to their target condition.

My Lords, extreme weather is now the new normal. When it comes to flood events, I am not certain that we are ready for the future. Although I recognise that the Government have doubled capital funding, information from the National Audit Office just two weeks ago revealed that the number of properties to be protected from flooding by 2027 has been cut by 40%. In addition, Unearthed has shown that 40,000 of England’s vital flood defences are so damaged as to be almost useless. Why are there no longer-term plans or concrete targets for flood defences beyond 2026-27? Is it time for a full review of our flood defences?

We constantly look over the horizon to make sure that we factor in important phenomena such as climate change and the extreme weather events we are seeing. The National Audit Office has reduced that figure principally because of the inflationary effect on the cost of building concrete and steel defences. Of course, that is only part of it; nature-based solutions are now becoming a key part of our defences. I really question the Unearthed data. The Environment Agency puts all defences in a category from 1 to 5. If it is a category 4, meaning that it is not where you want it to be, it still functions in the main. When we know that a flood is coming, a minor change can be made. That was an unfair description by Unearthed; the figure of 94% to 95% of our assets being in good condition is worthy of comment.

My Lords, more than half of Britain’s best farmland is on flood plains. Farmers are providing a public service by protecting towns and cities from flooding, but this means that they incur costs. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that farmers are adequately recompensed for this public service that they provide for our nation?

The right reverend Prelate is correct. Farmers can enter into some agri-environment schemes, which, as we know, are now targeted on public goods. One of those is protecting the public from flooding so, if farmers are holding flood-water on their land, they should be rewarded for it. They can also access the farming recovery fund, which provides assistance to farmers whose agricultural land has been damaged by flooding and declared a natural disaster by the Government. We provide financial assistance up to 100%, with a minimum grant level of £500 and a maximum of £25,000; that has been accessed in some extreme flooding conditions.

My Lords, thousands of homes are eligible for protection in the UK under the Flood Re protection scheme, which is an insurance scheme. With these two serious storms, can the Minister tell us a bit about how the scheme has performed during this period and whether there are any plans both to look at the scheme again and to examine, in particular, the eligibility criteria and rating levels within it?

I was involved in the setting up of Flood Re more than a decade ago. It has undoubtedly brought peace of mind to a huge number of households that could not get flood insurance or could get it only for an exorbitant amount. It needs looking at every so often, as building costs and our understanding of flood risk increase. The Government are working with the Flood Re in a variety of ways to ensure that we are making it fit not for just today but, as I said earlier, recognising that we could soon see houses we did not previously think were a flood risk become a flood risk. We want to make sure that this scheme covers them too.

My Lords, for Flood Re to work effectively, surely there should be no building on functional flood plains. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a vital role for maintenance and recognise the work of the drainage authorities? I have the honour of being the vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities. Will he also ensure that, where the Environment Agency fails to do the work, farmers and others can do it through the drainage boards and maintain these flood-banks?

This is going to come as a shock to my noble friend but I am not going to agree with her first point. If we say that we will not build on flood plains, that means no new houses in Leeds, London and many of our other major cities. What matters is not whether you build on flood plains but how you build. I was in the Netherlands last week, hearing about houses that are actually flood defences. There is so much successful building on flood plains around the world. There are also some fantastic examples in this country from the last 50 years of how not to do it. I urge caution when saying that we should not build on flood plains. We have increased the funding for maintenance of defences by £22 million per year, and are supporting farmers and others in their work to keep our homes from flooding.

My Lords, despite the Government doubling their capital funding in England to combat flooding, we know that a quarter of new flood defence projects will not be going ahead. The Environment Agency has blamed inflation for these cuts, as the Minister acknowledged earlier. A shortfall in the agency’s finances means that it cannot keep flood protections to the required condition to protect homes. Due to this inflation, the EA is now £34 million short of its expected budget. How will the Government make up this shortfall?

As the noble Baroness says, we have put record amounts into flood protection through the Environment Agency—£5.2 billion from 2021-27, which is a doubling of the investment. Additionally, there is an extra £200 million on maintenance, a £22 million increase in the maintenance fund this year and the Environment Agency is conducting a review, expecting around 69,200 high-consequence assets, of which 63,700 are at the required condition. We are not complacent. We recognise that there is an increased threat from flooding, as there is from a variety of extreme weather conditions. We have made this a priority for government and will continue to support the Environment Agency with what it needs to keep our homes safe from flooding.

My Lords, I will follow on the Minister’s answer to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. Given that we already have houses built on flood plains and that there will probably be more, what are the Government doing to mandate resilient design—he hinted that other countries have done that—and to retrofit houses that have already been built there? Things can be done, such as laying concrete flooring and raising the level of the electricity circuits. Will the Government ensure that this sort of design is built in when it becomes necessary to build new houses on flood plains?

I totally agree. Through our conversations on housing design and the incentives and financial support that we give to householders to retrofit, we are seeing those householders protect their houses themselves. In flood-risk areas, where you put the plug sockets can make a difference if a house floods, so recovery funding must also drive that. We must listen to the Environment Agency when it says that developments should not take place, but if the developer, working with the local authority, and the Environment Agency, says that these mitigation measures have been put in place, we will copy what goes on in places such as the Mississippi basin and the Netherlands, where there is intelligent building in flood-risk areas.

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that the public are sufficiently aware of flood risk when they buy a house, aside from what needs to be done legally in terms of a flood-risk report?

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the purchaser of a house to look at all the risks. There comes a point where government cannot be involved in every transaction and action of a human life. However, it is key that data on flood risk, of which there can now be an enormous amount, is accessible through the Environment Agency’s website and through local authorities. That should be accessed by people buying a house and those advising them.