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Our government consistently refuses to see the value in water

With George Osborne’s announcement of £2.3bn for capital investment in flood management measures in the six years from 2015, many will think this good news.

While any investment to keep people safe, secure and able to go about their lives unhindered is to be welcomed, the announcement and the way in which it has been used to make political capital, betrays the lack of seriousness with which this government takes coping with flooding.

Firstly the monies are not new and in fact have been taken from other budgets, with the Environment Agency expected to make further 10 per cent efficiency savings, and Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs), on average losing 18 per cent of their budgets.

The £2.3bn is for capital projects and has also hit the essential and desperately needed funding to maintain existing flood defence assets. In a Defra report last week [1], £600m is assumed to be provided by communities and local authorities to supplement government funding over the 6-year period.

Given that in the current spending period up to 2015, around £140m has been raised from such partnerships; there are serious questions around adding a further £100m per year from similar contributions in the next funding period. This will also leave many communities without essential protection where they cannot raise the many millions required.

Secondly, the deferral of a number of schemes (£1.6bn) until after the next Parliament is not good news for many who are living in fear of being inundated once again in the floods that seem to come every year.

There is also evidence that political ‘good news’ and media attention has influenced where the money is going to, with further funding for example for the protection of people living in the Somerset Levels, whilst other schemes, such as in Buckskin, Basingstoke where 86 people have lost their homes entirely, are deferred.

The announcement also leaves the issue of flooding in towns and cities to the water companies and the LLFAs. With 80 per cent of flood risk strategies still incomplete, the problem of our 50 per cent overloaded sewers and how best to manage urban development and the retrofitting needed to alleviate current problems lacks any strategy.

As our local authority budgets are cut back year on year, their ability to deliver not only strategies, but more joined up thinking and practices to manage water as a whole as part of land use planning and urban development – a process termed ‘water sensitive urban design’ [2] is severely hindered.

Evidence from around the world shows that taking this type of approach is not only cheaper than traditional ‘deal with the drainage problems’ but creates better places to live and work in. It also interconnects all of the parts of the water cycle and helps deal with drought as well as flooding at the same time.

Our government has consistently refused to see any value in water, and their attention deficit in this regard is illustrated not only by the recent announcement but also by the consistent opposition from the Department of Communities and Local Government to the full commencement of Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which would make the use of sustainable drainage systems compulsory for new developments and once and for all sort out the problems of who is best placed to maintain them.

Now, we are faced with what can only be described as a ‘dogs-breakfast’ of weakening regulations, a ‘political advantage’ approach to helping people who are at risk from flooding and a ‘well the worst may not happen on my watch’ vision by a government who see flagship roads and rail schemes as much more important than protecting people’s lives and homes.

Richard Ashley is Emeritus Professor at University of Sheffield

[1]Defra (2014). Reducing the risks of flooding and coastal erosion – An investment plan. December.

[2] Abbott J., et al (2013) Water Sensitive Urban Design – scope for UK practice. Construction Industry Research and Information Association report.

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