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Environment Agency: Flood Defence Expenditure

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the adequacy of expenditure by the Environment Agency on maintaining flood defences.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Water.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. In the 2021 spending review, the Government increased funding for flood defence maintenance by £22 million annually, bringing the total investment to more than £200 million a year. Additionally, the Government switched £25 million from the capital programme to use on maintenance this financial year. As a result, 93.3% of flood defences are at the required condition, protecting over 240,000 properties in recent storms.

My Lords, given the constraints on flood spending, does my noble friend agree that resources could be spent differently, possibly better? Does he recognise the importance of regular maintenance and dredging of watercourses and the role of farmers and drainage boards in performing them? Will he agree to look at the possibility of merging the flood spending budget into one total budget, instead of artificially dividing capital and operational expenditure? That one measure alone would prevent arguments taking place during a flood about what constitutes capital or operational expenditure, meaning that the funding could be achieved quicker.

My noble friend raises a good point. With over £200 million per year spent on maintenance, and a £5.2 billion capital investment for the 2021-27 years, flood defences are well resourced. There is a degree of flexibility between the two pots. By way of an example, last autumn the Government switched, as I said, £25 million from the capital programme to use on maintenance, given the severity of the storms. Resource funding to maintain existing flood defences is prioritised and allocated on a risk basis, focusing on assets protecting the greatest number of people and property. My noble friend also asked why we have a maintenance and a capital budget allocation. There are two separate budgets here: one for annual maintenance and one for flood defences. This approach is not specific to flood expenditure, but relates to how the Government account for public expenditure based on the Treasury guidelines.

My Lords, why do we not just stop housebuilding on the flood plain, when it is quite clear that we have increased flooding due to climate change? The expense of Flood Re settlements can only rise, with the already battered wider insurance market paying higher and higher premiums. Surely the answer is to ignore the pressure from developers for planning permission on flood plains, and sensitively to take more green-belt land—or is it that the developers have some undue influence on government?

The issue relating to flooding is not so much where we build our houses but how we build them. Historically, there have been some real challenges putting the right defences in place when houses have been built on flood plains. The reality is that if we banned any housebuilding on any flood plains, we would build very few houses going forward.

My Lords, I live and farm in a community that was inundated by inches of rain in a couple of hours last September. The 400 year-old school is no longer usable and ancient houses are uninhabitable. The cause of this was a simple lack of maintenance of culverts, ditches and drains by National Highways and local government. They simply do not have the budget to do that. What are the Government going to do to address this and ensure that local government has the money it needs to do the jobs we need?

The Government continue to invest in flood and coastal defence maintenance, with an extra £22 million per year for the current spending review period. Furthermore, £25 million from the capital programme has been reallocated to maintenance this year. In 2022-23, the Environment Agency spent more than £200 million maintaining flood risk assets across the country. Across the country we have about 90,000 flood risk assets which are checked annually by the Environment Agency.

My Lords, internal drainage boards provide essential services to areas that are habitually flooded. Currently, they are funded through district council tax. This is already stretching budgets, as IDB levies were increased by 18% last year. The Government have provided £3 million on a short-term basis. A more secure long-term solution is needed. Can the Minister say when this will be forthcoming?

Just today at the NFU conference, the Prime Minister announced new funding packages available to drainage boards across the country.

My Lords, many councils report that the formula used to determine the Environment Agency flood defence grant favours urban areas over rural communities. Will my noble friend the Minister consider exploring a new funding model for flood defences that combines capital and revenue funding into a single place-based pot?

My noble friend raises a good point. The allocation of resources is pretty much exactly as she expressed. It is done on the basis that areas most at risk will receive most of the funding. The Government will keep this under review, and I will take that point back to the department.

My Lords, I want to come back on the internal drainage boards answer. The councils affected are significantly financially impacted. We had a question yesterday on the impact on council finances. It is all very well that the Prime Minister has announced extra funding—that is excellent—but this is an urgent issue. How much money has been pledged, and when will councils see it?

My Lords, I will follow on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. In answer to a Written Question that I asked last month, I had the most extraordinary reply: that neither Defra nor the Environment Agency holds data on the amount of new build that has been flooded. This is clearly important in thinking about both flood defences and building new homes. Do the Government intend to make good this gap in knowledge?

Indeed they do. A significant amount of research is ongoing around this issue. It is obviously very topical. Perhaps, once that research has been published, I can come back to the noble Earl.

My Lords, the National Audit Office has noted that the Government have not set targets for the level of flood resilience they expect to achieve, and have not mapped any solid plans beyond 2026 to bridge the gap between their short-term actions and longer-term objectives. When will the FCERM strategy be updated, and are the Government planning to provide longer-term stable funding?

The Government have a very large budget for this spending period—£5.2 billion—and we are about half way through that process at the moment. The future funding arrangements will be subject to a funding review at the end of this period.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what can be done to stem the flood of Tory donors to the House of Lords?

My Lords, I thought my question was going to be off the point. One of the issues raised frequently with me by those managing the coastline in Suffolk is the disparity between flooding risks, for which the Environment Agency takes responsibility, and coastal erosion, which is managed by local authorities. What assessment have the Government made of the disparity of funding for these two vital activities?

There is a difficult balance to strike here in how you allocate the amount of money that we have to protect flooding defences right across the country, between the allocation made on the basis of risk and the amount of money located to areas where we can make the most difference in the shortest time.