Science & Environment

MPs call for major reform of flood risk management

flooding in Hebden Bridge Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Flooding in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in December 2015

Major reform of the system for managing flood risk is needed, a Commons environment and rural affairs committee report has said.

There should be a UK floods supremo, new flooding and coastal boards and a rivers and coastal authority, it said.

MPs said floodwater should be stored on agricultural land, urged tougher rules on house builders and stricter standards on repairing flooded homes.

The government said it it saw no need for organisational change.

The MPs disagree. They are unhappy with the Environment Agency's recent performance over flooding and want to see it stripped of powers, which would be handed to the proposed new bodies.

This is the latest in a number of reports triggered by last winter's devastating floods in the north of England.

The government has published two reports on flood resilience, and the environmental audit committee has also reported - calling for more government long-term planning on flood defences, and better maintenance.

The Committee on Climate Change has warned that flooding has a domino effect on infrastructure.

The report from the Environment and Rural Affairs committee is by far the most drastic.

The MPs conclude that in the light of climate change and the increased risk of torrential rain, the current organisational framework for dealing with floods is unfit.

They think a new national floods commissioner is needed to co-ordinate flood-related policy across governmental departments, reporting to the Cabinet Office.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Flooding in Carlisle

The MPs also want new regional flood and coastal boards to organise regional delivery of national plans, in partnership with local groups and authorities.

They also urge the creation of a new English Rivers and Coastal Authority, taking on current Environment Agency roles. 

Radical alternative

The committee's chairman, Neil Parish MP, 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."

Critics may wonder how the environment department Defra, already struggling under severe job cuts and wrestling with the seismic implications of Brexit on the countryside, could envisage such a massive organisational reform at this time.

Some of the MPs' recommendations, though, are less controversial. They support the fashionable idea of catching water in the uplands to prevent floods lower down the catchment, as demonstrated in Pickering in Yorkshire.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology cautioned about limited evidence that such natural schemes would mitigate flooding from very extreme events on a large catchment scale.

Image copyright PA
Image caption People were evacuated from flooded properties in York in December after the River Ouse burst its banks

So the MPs want a large-catchment trial to test natural methods like upland bunds and leaky dams.

The MPs are critical of the Environment Agency for what they see as its over-reliance on traditional "hard" flood defences.

They are keen for farmers to be offered incentives to store floodwaters on their land. They note that the damage cost of flooding fields is far lower than for flooding towns.

Their report says: "Artificial land drainage, deforestation and urban development have increased the amount of water that runs off the land into rivers. Urban development has encroached upon floodplains, and river channels have been narrowed and straightened.

"Farming methods have had particular impact: currently around 70% of UK land is used for agriculture, and some farming practices can reduce soils' ability to store and drain water.

"Changing land management practices combined with increased rainfall mean that the likelihood of flooding is now at an all-time high and will continue to increase."

Brexit opportunity

The MPs see a chance for reform with Brexit, and want to ensure that any farm payments agreed under a new subsidy regime prioritise incentives to buffer flooding.

The MPs also want to tighten up rules for developers, who, they say, can walk away from flood problems they have caused. They want the right of any home to connect surface water run-off to a mains sewer to be discontinued. New developments should be landscaped in such a way that takes care of their own run-off, they say.

Another idea is for insurers to be allowed to upgrade properties when they are flooded so they don't get flooded again. Currently they are simply allowed to re-instate what's already there.

A Defra spokesperson said: "We take a long-term, strategic approach to protecting the nation from floods.

"A huge amount of work has been undertaken as a result of the National Flood Resilience Review, including £12.5m investment in new mobile defences, such as barriers and high volume pumps.

"This means homeowners will be better protected this winter than last, as will much of our critical infrastructure.

"This is part of the £2.5bn we are spending on building flood defence schemes across the country to better protect an additional 300,000 homes by 2021, bringing an end to year-on-year fluctuations in spend.

"We are already implementing many of the suggestions this report makes, such as managing watercourses across entire catchment areas."

Rachael Maskell, shadow secretary of state said: "The committee have highlighted many of the same concerns and solutions that Labour has been raising, including the Committee Chair's feeling that the Government's Flood Resilience Review offers limited solutions.

"There is still a lack of confidence in schemes to protect businesses and the £12.5m pledged to temporary flood barriers will not bring the long-term protection required."

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

More on this story