The blame game

10th February 2014


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  • Adaptation ,
  • Environment agencies

Author

IEMA

Dwindling finances and a smaller workforce mean the Environment Agency will find it harder to provide flood protection in many areas. But that's not the fault of the agency, argues Paul Suff

The first month of 2014 was officially the wettest January on record in the southeast and central southern England. The Met Office reports that these areas received more than twice the average rainfall for the time of year in the first 28 days of 2014. Across the southwest and south Wales, January was the fifth wettest since records began in 1910. For the UK as a whole, the amount of rain that fell last month was 35% above the long-term average.

Images of huge swathes of England under water for several weeks, with no respite in sight, have placed flooding and the role of the Environment Agency in protecting vulnerable communities centre stage. Many of those living and working in the Somerset Levels, for example, whose homes have been flooded and livelihoods damaged, point the finger of blame at the agency. Its apparent failure to routinely dredge the local Tone and Parrett rivers and its expenditure on creating a wetland near the coast have been singled out as reasons why the Levels have been submerged this winter.

But if we want to apportion blame we need to look elsewhere. The agency reported in December 2013 that it routinely considers dredging and other types of watercourse channel management to reduce flood risk, and spends £20 million annually on dredging, desilting, removing gravel and obstructions along with weed control to clear channels. It also reports carrying out desilting work in October 2013 at five “pinch point” locations on the Tone and Parrett to improve flows.

Irrespective of whether more dredging would have stopped the Levels flooding on this occasion – and most experts believe that even river channels with a significantly larger capacity would not have coped with the amount of rain that fell throughout the first weeks of 2014 – the agency has to fund its river maintenance work from a rapidly declining pot of money.

Parliament’s environment committee reported in 2013 that the agency’s maintenance budget for 2013/14 was just under £70 million and for 2014/15 was set to be £60.7 million, concluding that since 2000 funding for maintenance activities had halved. Many agency officers have worked tirelessly since the high tides in early December brought the first round of winter floods. Yet, this year nearly 15% of the agency workforce will be made redundant following Defra’s decision to slash annual funding by £33.5 million.

Computer models suggest that climate change will increase winter precipitation in the UK and the country will be at risk of more frequent extreme weather, such as storm surges, so it must prepare for a greater risk of flooding. Dwindling finances and a smaller workforce will mean the agency will find it harder to provide the necessary flood protection in many areas. But that’s not the fault of the agency.


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