Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Flood of words over rising water

A shorter version of this appears in the current issue of Sustainable Building

Despite a succession of ministers, including David Cameron, insisting resources for flood defences and mitigation have grown under the Coalition Government, MPs on the Environment Select Committee - under Conservative chair Anne McIntosh - issued a waspish new report on 7 January, asking under pressure environment secretary Owen Patterson, to clarify how planned spending cuts in Defra will impact future flood  management.

Mr Patterson told MPs this week that “about 5 million properties in England are at risk of flooding.”

Launching its report, Anne McIntosh said: “Defra is a small ministry facing massive budget cuts and which relies on a large number of arms-length bodies to deliver many significant areas of policy. Ministers must clarify how further budgets cuts of over £300 million over the coming 2 years will impact on the funding provided to these agencies and the ability of the Department to respond to emergencies.”

Meanwhile, the long-running dispute over who should pay for the flood maintenance storage charge has burst into the public, three years after the outgoing Labour Government  legislated for the implementation of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) for new housing development in the Flood Act 2010.

The BBC reported that housebuilders insist it will put up the cost of new homes and have been wrangling with government and councils over who pays to maintain new systems. The broadcaster says it understands that a deal has now been struck, which is likely to see councils annually billing the owners of newly built homes for maintaining flood-prevention measures like ponds and hollows in the land designed to trap water.

Last summer MPs on the Environment Select committee demanded that ministers should introduce the SUDS rules immediately, but the government said it would delay doing so until this April. This has now been further delayed until this summer.

Paul Shaffer from Susdrain, the community for sustainable drainage, based at the construction research institute CIRIA, told BBC News: "The greatest benefits are likely to be if the water is captured on the surface. In some places it won't be appropriate, but generally it's a more simple solution that's easier to maintain. You get pollutants broken down free of charge by vegetation, you get amenity value that improves people's quality of lives, you help to improve biodiversity, you also get the benefit that in heatwaves the open areas of water help to cool down the surrounding land.”

But house builders say these features should not be mandatory because they take land which would otherwise be used for homes, and this increases the cost of house-building.

Professor Richard Ashley, an expert in urban water management at Sheffield University, observed the situation is “Ridiculous. The house builders are lobbying furiously behind the scenes.”

Local Government Association spokesman Councillor Mike Jones added: "The developers should be able to pay for the works that are needed. They are making very healthy profits."

In a Parliamentary discussion** on the impact of flooding 6 January Green MP Dr Caroline Lucas asked Mr Patterson why under his leadership of Defra he has seen the decision to slash Defra’s team working on climate change adaptation from 38 officials to six and when at the same time Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has scrapped the obligation for councils to prepare for the impacts of climate change? She demanded: “will the Secretary of State not acknowledge that that illustrates an incredibly reckless approach to the risks that extreme weather presents”?

At Environment Questions on 9 January Labour MP Hugh Bayley, who represents York Central, an area prone to urban flooding, challenged the environment secretary over his repeated insistence that the £2.3 billion due to be spent in the six-year period from 2015-16 by the coalition on flood protection is a bigger sum that spent by Labour, arguing that in an earlier  Parliamentary answer on 15 July  last year revealed Defra’s spending on flood protection in England fell from £646 million in 2010-11 to £533 million in 2013-14.

In a written reply on 9 January Communities floods minister, Brandon Lewis, said as of 8 January, Defra  had received 22 notifications from local authorities that they intend to make a claim under the Bellwin Scheme – which provides emergency financial assistance to local authorities to help them meet uninsurable costs they incur when responding to a major emergency in their area - for the recent severe weather events.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s question time in Parliament on 8 January, Mr Cameron confirmed the scope of the flood threat saying there were “currently 104 flood warnings in place across the whole of England and Wales. That means, sadly, that more flooding is expected and that immediate action is required. There are also 186 flood alerts, which means even further flooding is possible beyond what we expect to happen more rapidly

He added “On the positive side, the Environment Agency warning service worked better than it has in the past and the flood defences protected up to a million homes over the December and Christmas period, but there are some negatives, too, and we need to learn lessons from them.”

He also said he  agreed that “we are seeing more abnormal weather events. Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not; I very much suspect that it is. The point is that, whatever one’s view, it makes sense to invest in flood defences and mitigation and to get information out better, and we should do all of those things.”

Asked by Labour leader, Ed Miliband if he would commit to Defra “providing a report by the end of this month, providing a full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies and of whether the investment plans in place are equal to the need for events of this kind?”, Mr Cameron responded he would be “very happy to make that commitment.”

He also stressed that in addition to Government money, ministers “ are keen to lever in more private sector and local authority money, which is now possible under the arrangements.”

Mr Patterson said in Environment Question Time on 9 January that  “thanks to the fact that we have galvanised local councils through the partnership funding scheme, there will be all sorts of opportunities for ..local council(s) to access more funds for flood schemes.” He added “In November, it was found that 97% of the defences were in a good condition and would remain so within our existing budgets.”

But Shadow environment secretary, Maria Eagle challenged the environment secretary, asking: ”When he became Secretary of State in September 2012, (he) reviewed his Department’s priorities. Why did his new list of four priorities make no reference to preparing for and managing risks from flood and other environmental emergencies, as the old list of priorities and responsibilities had done?”, to be told “My first priority is to grow the rural economy, and I am delighted to say that our ambitious schemes will help to do that,” adding “Dear, oh dear, this is lame stuff. We are spending £2.3 billion over the course of this Parliament, with £148 million of partnership money. We have an extra £5 million for revenue, and in the course of the recent reduction across Departments I specifically excluded flood defence, so the reduction is spread across the rest of Defra.”

Efra select committee critique of Defra annual report

Pointing to the recent flooding events over the Christmas and New year period, Committee chair Anne McIntosh insisted it reinforced the Committee's “concerns about cuts to the Defra budget and how these will be realised. The Environment Agency is set to lose 1700 jobs in the next 12 months,“ pointing out  “We have asked the Department to confirm the amount of contributions received from external sources under the Partnership Funding approach and to demonstrate how the Partnership Funding model for flood defences will deliver much greater private sector funding in the future. This will allow the drainage boards to do more of the essential maintenance work of main watercourses using their own resources.”

The MPs said that while they “understand that nearly all Government departments face budget cuts,” they also insisted that “savings must not have an adverse impact on the Department's ability to respond to emergencies.”  They invited Defra to set out its position in relation to reported reductions in staff at the Environment Agency and Defra’s research body, the Food and Environment Research Agency( Fera).  

They add that since the committee took evidence, “we have learnt that the Government will undertake a 'market sounding' exercise to explore joint venture as a potential future business model Fera The Government says that an external partner who has the necessary expertise and experience could help Fera "further develop and grow non-government revenue". It will announce the future of Fera at the end of the financial year.

The impact of spending reviews

The MPs set out that Defra’s budget, described as the Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) for its strategic objectives in 2012-13, was £2.5 billion, which  has been reduced by £500 million since the 2010 Spending Review and will reduce further by £300 million by 2015-16, which “represents one of the largest budget reductions in percentage terms for any Department, prompting questions about the Department's ability to manage its remit.” They added on 5 December, in the Autumn Statement, and subsequent to the Committee’s evidence sessions, additional reductions in Defra's resource (non-capital) budget of £19 million in 2014-15 and £18 million in 2015-16 were announced.Table 1: Reductions in total DEL expenditure

%real-change from 2010/11

In June 2013 the Treasury announced that Defra was expected to save £54 million by 2015-16 through better joint working between the Department's delivery bodies under the Strategic Alignment programme, but they also note that the Environment Secretary “did not provide us with any detail on which aspects of Departmental activity would bear the brunt of the savings.”

The MPs conclude that the Secretary of State “needs to be clearer about what substantial cuts in Defra's budget will mean for policy delivery. …We invite the Secretary of State to set out in detail, in response to this Report, what programmes and policies will be reduced or ended to meet the required budget savings.”

The MPs note that “there have been reports that the Environment Agency, which is responsible for responding to floods, is expected to lose about 1,700 jobs in the next 12 months.”

George Eustice, Conservative Defra minister for water and rural affairs, said in response to criticisms of Defra cuts that the cuts had not impacted on flood defences, stressing: “The £300 million cut is a cut to Defra’s overall budget. Within that, what we’ve actually said we’ll do is prioritise spending on flood defence – that’s why we’re going to be spending more in the next spending review period on flood defence than we have in the previous one.” 

He also suggested that the Environment Agency cuts might have made the organisation more efficient, pointing out “It’s important to remember that sometimes having cuts in budgets can drive change and cause governments to look at doing things differently. In the case of the Environment Agency, they cut back office admin costs by about a third.”

But Guy Shrubsole, a Friends of the Earth climate campaigner, countered: “Protecting British households from the destructive impacts of climate change is essential. The Prime Minister must intervene to ensure flood defence spending rises to meet the challenge.”

Trades Unions also urged the government to reverse the job losses at the Environment Agency, with Leslie Manasseh, the deputy general secretary of the Prospect union asserting: “They need to learn the lessons of the experiences of this winter, which have had such a devastating impact on so many people.”

Paul Leinster, the EA's chief executive said: "The EA has to save money and reduce staff numbers, like the rest of the public sector. We are looking to protect frontline services and our ability to respond to flooding when it occurs."

Defra floods minister Dan Rogerson published details in a written answer on 6 January of the number of staff employed directly by the Environment Agency in flood alleviation works in each of the last three years :

Number of staff
2013-14 (to Q2)

Charles Tucker, chairman of the National Flood Forum,added: "It's about joined-up thinking. With joined-up thinking, you don't cut the staff at the EA who manage flooding and maintain flood assets. With joined-up thinking, you don't keep cutting local council capability to deal with the new flooding responsibilities they've been given."

Ø  Meanwhile, Utility Week has revealed*** a whistleblower as accused the Environment Agency ' of abuses public funds, reporting that the Agency is under pressure from anonymous allegations of abusing public funds at the same time as its depleted workforce try to tackle widespread flooding.

An ex-employee, who identified himself only as “Henry”, earlier this month launched a blog painting a picture of endemic fraud, bullying and mismanagement in the Agency, in nearly 30 posts, all dated January 2014.

Henry told Utility Week he had lodged a complaint with Paul Leinster.

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