The number of properties that will be better protected from flooding by 2027 has been cut by 40%, and 500 of 2,000 new flood defence projects have been abandoned, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
The number of homes forecast to be under enhanced flood protection by 2027 has been slashed from 336,000 to 200,000. This means 136,000 more homes will be at risk of flooding since plans were drawn up in 2020, figures from an NAO report show.
Despite the government doubling its capital funding in England to £5.2bn to combat the danger of flooding, a quarter of new flood defence projects will now not go ahead. The Environment Agency (EA) has blamed inflation for the cuts in protection.
Thousands of homes have been flooded during storms this autumn. Storm Babet was confirmed to have caused more than 2,000 homes to flood, while Storm Ciarán flooded more than 1,000. Storm Debi, which is causing havoc in Ireland, is expected to hit the west of England this week. Climate experts say storms are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate breakdown.
The EA has added protection from floods to 59,000 properties in England since 2020. It had a target of protecting 336,000 homes by 2027.
A shortfall in the agency’s finances means it cannot keep enough flood protections in the required condition to prevent destruction to homes. Due to inflation, the EA is £34m short of its expected budget, which means it will be be able to maintain only 94% to 95% of its assets at the required condition, resulting in 203,000 properties at increased risk of flooding. It had aimed to maintain 98% of its high-consequence assets at their required condition.
The flood protection programme got off to a slow start. There was an underspend of £310m in its first two years, which has been deferred by the Treasury to make sure the government meets its target of spending £5.2bn on flood defences by 2027. Because of this underspend the EA will have to spend an average of almost £1bn each year over the remaining four years of the programme. There are fears from the NAO that these pressures will further erode value for money if hasty decisions are made to spend the funds.
The NAO has also warned that the government has not set a long-term target for the level of flood resilience it expects to achieve and that there are no concrete plans beyond 2026 to meet long-term goals, meaning that long-term investment could be inefficient and not sufficiently protect enough homes from flooding.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Government recognises the growing dangers from flooding and has committed to doubling its capital funding in England in the six years to 2027, as well as doing more to understand flood risk.
“However, the capital funding is forecast to better protect only 60% of the properties that were promised when the programme was launched in 2020, while inflation and other programme risks mean the Environment Agency could deliver even fewer than that. If there are further delays to the capital programme, Defra must work with HM Treasury to make sure it is in a position to switch money quickly into maintenance, where this would provide value for money.
“EA will have to manage a record level of capital investment in flood defences for the remaining four years of the programme. In doing so, it must resist pressure to accelerate projects or initiate new ones too quickly, if this is likely to lead to cost overruns and delays and put value for money at risk.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said: “This report should be right at the top of new environment secretary Steve Barclay’s red box, laying bare the scale of ministers’ unforgivable neglect of this flooding crisis. Just weeks after huge numbers of homes were hit by devastating flooding, people are crying out for support and protection – yet this government has utterly failed to provide it. To add insult to injury, thousands more are expected to be unprotected from flooding risk in the years ahead.”
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