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Flooding shouldn't have to be a disaster

29 October 2023: flooded road and footpath in Durham as the River Wear rose after heavy rains. Photo Martin Hurton/shutterstock.com.

Floods are an ever-present risk in Britain. While they’re never good news, their impact can be managed and lessened. But not if government continues to fail to act…

It was a wet and often windy autumn across Britain – again! Storm Babet in October 2023 caused extensive and prolonged flooding across the country, with areas as far apart as eastern Scotland, Suffolk and Derby being particularly badly hit.

Recent reports from the National Audit Office (NAO) into flooding and weather resilience in England have strongly criticised a lack of long-term planning. The NAO sets out the problem quite clearly, “the government wants to achieve greater resilience to flooding in the long term but has no measure for resilience and no target for the level of flood resilience it expects to achieve.”

In other words, national government is failing to ensure that flood risk is adequately managed.

Parts of eastern Scotland along with much of England saw over 150 per cent of the 1991-2020 long term average rainfall. Eastern Scotland (with 135 per cent) had its seventh wettest autumn since 1836. For northern England and southeast England. it was the ninth wettest.


Flooding due to natural phenomena like heavy rainfall, high winds and high tides is nothing new. Human activity has also increased flooding and the risk of flooding over many centuries – from deforestation to land reclamation and changes in agricultural practices.

Recently Britain has been experiencing severe winter storms, resulting in extensive coastal damage and widespread flooding. These have become more frequent over the past 60 years according to academic studies. The cause and connection to a changing climate are the subject of debate, outside the scope of this article.

Flooding often leads to devastating consequences for huge numbers of Britain’s workers. That’s been especially so in the past few years as homes have been destroyed, or more often badly damaged. People can spend up to a year in temporary accommodation while their homes are repaired.

Businesses and workplaces are also adversely affected by flooding. This results in job losses and causes serious financial difficulties for those businesses.

The many workers affected by flooding are bound to ask whether enough has been done by government – both national and local – to manage and mitigate flood risk. Responsibilities are split – complicated by devolution.

In England, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for flood and coastal erosion risk management. Its policies are mainly delivered by the Environment Agency (EA) in conjunction with numerous public bodies and agencies. It has a strategic overview of all sources of flooding and coastal erosion and works with the Met Office to provide flood forecasts and warnings.

Scotland has the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, reporting to the minster for “Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition”. And Scottish Water has overall responsibility for flood risk management there. Natural Resources Wales plays that role in Wales.


Weather forecasting has developed so that it is now much more accurate at local level. This has proved invaluable in allowing the EA to provide flood warnings to individuals and organisations. It has also been very useful to Network Rail and Highways England and local councils, allowing them to accurately predict likely trouble spots and plan appropriate mitigation.

The EA asserts that every £1 spent improving protection from flooding and coastal erosion avoids around £5 of property damage. It also estimates that between 27 and 57 per cent of the economic costs of damage due to floods are costs to businesses. Despite this, the private sector has contributed less than a tenth of the total partnership funding for flood risk mitigation.

The EA estimates that 5.7 million properties are at risk of flooding [see correction below], and that key infrastructure is at risk – up to 77 per cent of rail infrastructure, 51 per cent of water supply infrastructure and 25 per cent of gas infrastructure.

Worryingly, of the 96,000 flood defence assets looked after by the Environment Agency, only 94 per cent of what it describes as “high consequence systems” were being maintained at the required condition in summer 2023. That’s below the 98 per cent which the EA regards as optimal.

This is because government is failing to provide sufficient money. The EA assessed the shortfall in its maintenance funding for 2022-23 at £34 million. This is the extra money it would need, on top of the £201 million allocated in the 2021 Spending Review, to maintain those high consequence assets at the required condition.

‘There is currently no statutory duty on fire and rescue services to respond to flooding risk…’

More concerning is the failure on the part of government to fulfil its commitments to substantially improve the number of properties protected. In 2020, when the capital programme was originally announced, government committed to spend over £5 billion to better protect 336,000 properties by 2027.

In the first two years of the programme, EA has “better protected” 59,000 properties, spending £1.4 billion. EA now forecasts that only 200,000 properties will be better protected by 2027, a 40 per cent shortfall.

The NAO says that delivery of the capital programme is slowed by capacity and skills shortages both in the EA and in local authorities. It hints that the salaries of skilled jobs are not enough to attract suitably qualified staff in a highly competitive external jobs market.

The NAO report also accuses the government of creating uncertainty by failing to set out clearly the respective roles of central government, local government, the devolved administrations, the private and voluntary sectors, and the public.


The report also criticises the failure of central government to “pressure test” the systems and provide itself with the necessary assurance that the existing flood mitigations will actually be as effective as they are meant to be.

In response to the NAO report, Hannah Cloke, a Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading, said, “In terms of future resilience and preparedness, I would say we are not very well prepared in some places even now. At some locations in the UK, climate change means that existing threats will become more likely and more dangerous, such as on some coasts as sea levels rise, or in areas prone to landslips or river flooding.

“Resilience to storms means taking action to prepare for the worst possible conditions while the going is good, and that can seem expensive and unnecessary to many people when the sun is shining.”

Firefighters have been in the forefront of tackling the flood emergencies up and down the country, protecting lives, homes and infrastructure. But, unbelievably, in England there is currently no statutory duty on fire and rescue services to respond to flooding risk.

The NAO calls for this to be remedied, and for those services to have the necessary resources to adequately deal with that risk, a call which has been wholeheartedly supported by the Fire Brigades Union. The union points out that since 2010 fire and rescue services have lost one in five jobs and had central government funding cut by 30 per cent.

The government has already identified the need to build much greater resilience to flooding by avoiding inappropriate development in flood plains, using natural solutions to control flows of flood water, better preparing and responding to incidents, and making properties and infrastructure more resilient to future flooding.

But such is the short-term nature of the current and previous governments that make them both unable and unwilling to carry out the necessary actions to protect from flooding the lives, property, services and jobs of Britain’s people.


This article originally stated that the figure of 5.7 million properties at risk of flooding represented 60 per cent of all properties in England. That was incorrect– the figure is much lower. There are 24.9 million dwellings in England, of which about 20 per cent are in blocks of flats and similar properties that include more than one dwelling.