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Flood resilience eroded by poorly maintained defences with Government in the dark on progress

17 January 2024

  • Number of protected properties could continue to dwindle from current levels of at least 40% fewer than planned
  • Committee concerned at development continuing in areas of clear flood risk

The Government does not know if it is making the UK more resilient to flooding. In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warns that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has no overall numerical target for the UK’s level of long-term flood resilience, and so cannot know if it is progressing in its 2020 ambition to create “a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk”.

Flood protection will be provided for at least 40% fewer properties than planned, according to Environment Agency (EA) forecasts. This is due to factors including inflation and the bureaucracy associated with approving projects. With the programme’s success relying on the completion of many large projects where the EA has only medium or low confidence of delivering by 2027, the Committee is concerned that the number of properties better protected could turn out to be even fewer than the current revised-down forecast of 200,000.

In 2022-23, there were 5.7 million properties in England at risk of flooding. The Committee’s report highlights a range of concerns in Government’s support and approach to flood resilience, including:

  • smaller and rural communities losing out due to a lack of flood protection provision for communities of fewer than 100 houses that can nevertheless be devastated by the impact of flooding;
  • new housing continuing to be built in high flood risk areas without adequate mitigations, as over half of Local Planning Authorities said they rarely or never inspect a new development to check compliance with flood risk planning conditions;
  • a lack of necessary leadership and support from Government for local authorities on how to address the increasing risks of surface water flooding.

Due to a lack of funding, the Environment Agency (EA) has not been able to meet its target of maintaining 98% of its high consequence flood defences (which protect the most properties) at their required condition. The report highlights that 203,000 properties are at increased risk due to deteriorating flood defences, more than the 200,000 separate properties the Government expects to better protect through its ongoing capital programme by 2027. These figures illustrate that poor maintenance is undermining progress from new capital expenditure and Defra’s failure to establish what the appropriate balance is between building new defences and maintaining existing ones.

Deputy Chair's comment

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, Deputy Chair of the Committee, said:

“With the reality of climate change and increasing rainfall, robust flood resilience must of course become an ever-increasing priority. As we have recently seen once again, the depredations caused by such disasters are a matter of life and death for communities up and down the country. This inquiry has uncovered the alarming truth that in a number of ways, the approach to keeping our citizens safe in this area is contradictory and self-defeating, not least in the continuing development of new housing in areas of high flood risk without appropriate mitigations.

The number of properties at risk of flooding from deteriorating defences eclipsing those benefitting from new ones is another case in point. This is emblematic both of the Government’s failure to strike the right balance between maintenance and construction, and of not considering the net number of properties at risk. One of the first steps in delivering any successful policy is clearly defining what success looks like. We hope the recommendations in our report help the Government to do so.”

Further information

Image: PA