Deep cuts to maintenance grants could expose more Westcountry homes to flooding and cut the lifespan of vital defences, it has been warned.
In the last three months alone, more than 1,000 homes in Devon and Cornwall have been hit by flooding at the end of what was one of the wettest years on record.
But the Government has slashed the funding for maintaining flood defences in Devon and Cornwall by 25% – or more than £800,000 – for next year.
Now experts at the Environment Agency have warned there will be less maintenance – including in high risk areas – which could put more properties at flood risk and damage defences with “no guarantee of repair”.
“We finally have official confirmation from the independent Environment Agency that massive Government cuts to flood defences are putting Westcountry communities at risk,” Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said. “For every £1 invested in flood defence we save £8 in the long run. The Government keeps claiming it wants to speed up ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects to boost our stagnant economy. There’s nowhere better or more cost-effective to start than flood defence.”
The consequences of the funding cut were spelled out in a report by Ben Johnstone, the agency’s flood and coastal erosion risk programme manager in the South West.
He outlined how the maintenance budget had been cut from £3.33 million this year to £2.51 million next year – a cut of 25% and 21% less than had been bid for.
Mr Johnstone also warned that a further 17% might have to be found if extra funding was later withdrawn by the Government.
“There will be less money available to fund high consequence systems, where river or coastal flooding would cause most damage to people and property, meaning that money has to be concentrated on legal and statutory requirements, minimum needs, or where other ‘identified needs’ offer significant benefits,” the report said.
“The movement of a large number of systems into minimum needs will result in a major shift in how our defences are maintained into the future. In some locations this will mean significantly less vegetation removal/cutting in channel and on flood banks. This will reduce channel conveyance and over time may reduce the standards of protection provided some of our schemes, thereby putting more properties at risk of flooding.
“Further reductions in our allocation in 2014/15 and beyond will need us to undertake a more fundamental review of our maintenance work. It may also have an impact on our incident response capability as the allocation funds the workforce who undertakes this work.”
The winter deluge which brought flood misery to many communities, most notably Braunton in North Devon and Helston in West Cornwall, has also left some flood defences – so-called “assets” – in less than perfect condition.
Mr Johnstone said: “It is accepted that at this level of funding the efficiency of operation and reliability will suffer in the long term and that the level of investment may result in accelerated deterioration and reduced asset life.”
He added: “There will also be an increasing number of asset failures resulting from a reduced level of maintenance. These asset failures will then only be rectified through the recondition programme, which itself is subject to a further benefit cost assessment, and so does not carry any guarantee of repair in the short term.”
The agency highlighted a number of communities where maintenance would have to be reduced, including Boscastle in North Cornwall which was devastated by floods in 2004 and later had a £10 million flood defence scheme built. A cut of around 26% – to £49,000 a year – would reduce maintenance of flood screens and channel clearance in both the Valency and Jordan rivers which run through the village.
“There would be an increased chance of trees and sediment blocking the channel and bridge on the Valency, perhaps increasing flood risk from 1:75 (years) to 1:40 for around 50 properties,” the agency said.
“There would be increased debris availability on the Jordan, meaning a greater chance of critical trash screens blocking, increasing flood risk to around 1:10 to around 30 properties. The community are monitoring our maintenance activities closely and are likely to be very critical and anxious even if we proactively communicate the reasons why.”
Dave Ferrett, chairman of Forrabury and Minster Parish Council, said: “The maintenance has been pretty good up until now. I think any cuts would worry people.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for flood defence funding, declined to comment saying it was a matter for the Environment Agency.