MPs voice flood risk management reform calls

A report from the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has warned that a major reform of the system for managing flood risk is needed.

Despite the government reiterating that it saw no need for organisational change, MPs have argued that the Environment Agency’s recent performance over flooding is poor, and that it should be stripped of its powers.

Instead, such powers should be handed to a new bodies, which would include a UK floods supremo, new flooding and coastal boards and a rivers and coastal authority.

The report from the Environment and Rural Affairs committee follows recent reports by the government, the Environmental Audit Committee and the Committee on Climate Change, all of which have been triggered by the drastic floods of December 2015.

The proposed national floods commissioner would co-ordinate flood-related policy across governmental departments, while the regional delivery of wider, national plans would be coordinated by regional flood and coastal boards, which would work in partnership with local authorities.

The report was also critical of the over reliance on traditional flood defences, and recommended the government adopt new approaches, such as catching water in the uplands to prevent floods lower down the catchment, as demonstrated in Pickering in Yorkshire.

The committee also highlighted the benefits of ‘changing land management practices’, noting the possibility of offering incentives to farmers to store floodwaters on their land. They note that the damage cost of flooding fields is far lower than for flooding towns.

Neil Parish, chairman of the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, said: “We propose a radical alternative to the current fragmented, inefficient and ineffective flood risk management arrangements.

“Our proposals will deliver a far more holistic approach to flooding and water supply management, looking at catchments as a whole. Flood management must include much wider use of natural measures such as leaky dams, tree planting and improved soil management. And some areas of farmland should be used to store floodwater.”

Cllr Martin Tett, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, added: “The key to protecting communities from the sort of devastation seen last winter is for government to devolve funding to councils, who know their areas best and can most effectively meet local needs.

“Councils make considerable contributions to flood defences yet they have little control over where the money is spent. The government must also introduce mandatory anti-flood requirements for new homes which are included in building regulations. These would require developers to introduce measures like raised electrical sockets, fuse boxes, controls and wiring above floor level; ventilation brick covers; sealed floors; and raised damp-proof courses.”

However, critics have been quick to warn of the dangers associated with disrupting the work of the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) at a time when job cuts and Brexit uncertainty are already causing large problems.

Guy Shrubsole, Friends of the Earth climate campaigner, is one such critic of the news.

He said of the proposals: “Abolishing the Environment Agency's role in flooding, as this report proposes, is a terrible idea, which would waste vital expertise and could cause more delays in planning better ways to avoid flooding.

"The environment committee clearly understands that better management of our rivers and waterways needs more joined-up thinking - not less. This includes working with nature across entire river catchments and dealing with climate change.

“The government should heed MPs' welcome proposals to tackle flooding at root - but not distracting proposals to break up the Environment Agency."