Flood management needs radical overall, say MPs

MPs have called for a radical overhaul of flood management in England, with a new national commissioner responsible for long-term risk reduction, greater use of farmland to store water and changes to Building Regulations to make developers liable for the damage caused if they ignore flood regulations.

The Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee said five million people are at risk of flooding and climate change will bring increasing risk to communities. Winter 2015-16 broke rainfall records, with storms Desmond, Eva and Frank hitting the North of the UK. Desmond alone cost the country more than £5bn.

The committee criticised the Government's National Flood Resilience Review's "limited" solutions to current flood management, which it described as fragmented, inefficient and ineffective.

It recommends a single commissioner, who would agree with Government on strategic, long-term risk reduction outcomes and would be responsible accountable for their delivery. Regional Flood & Coastal Boards would coordinate regional delivery of national plans in partnership with local stakeholders, taking on the current roles of lead local flood authorities and regional flood and coastal committees. A new English Rivers & Coastal Authority should also be formed to take on national flood risk management roles currently held by the Environment Agency.

The committee said this model would streamline responsibilities and pool expertise, allowing bodies to deliver their unique roles. Funding would be "firmly linked" to outcomes, with the commissioner holding the English Rivers & Coastal Authority to account on the efficiency of its spending.

In addition, MPs called for much wider adoption of catchment measures. By July 2017, it wants Defra to have commissioned a large-catchment trial of the effectiveness of natural flood risk management measures, such as installation of leaky dams, tree planting and improved soil management. Alongside this, farmland should be used in some places to store flood water. Defra and the National Farmers' Union should work on approaches that will have a low impact on farm productivity and provide "appropriate incentives" for farmers.

Building Regulations should also be tightened to help flood-proof properties - and developer that fail to comply with planning requirements should be liable for the cost of associated flooding across a catchment.

Furthermore, by 2017 the Government should develop a grant scheme for small firms unable secure affordable insurance to install resilience measures and, by the end of this year, the Environment Agency and Met Office should introduce clearer method of communicating flood risk.

Nevertheless, the report acknowledged that it will be impossible to protect all properties from flooding and it called on ministers to improve help for communities and individuals to cope with and recover from the damage.

Committee chair Neil Parish said: "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 flood water."

The Government said it takes a "long-term, strategic approach" to flood protection and sees no need for organisational change.

"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," a Defra spokesperson said.

"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."