England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development

The governance of flooding in Britain is a mess


Councils will rightly be expected to provide shelter for those made homeless, inform householders about support, reopen roads and work hand in hand with the emergency services. In addition, local authorities are responsible for local planning, housing and social care. Therefore, it is surprising to many that they only control 8% of the total amount spent on flooding and a jumble of other local and national organisations control the rest.

The governance of flooding in England and Wales, is a mess. Different bodies are responsible depending on whether the flooding is from a large river, a small river, a ditch, groundwater or heavy rain. To add to the complexity water doesn’t stand still and can flow into several different jurisdictions in one afternoon. So, floodwater may start in a farmer’s field, cross a road which is the responsibility of the Highways Agency, enter a culvert owned by a water company into a main river which is the responsibility of the Environment Agency then join a flooded city centre caused by heavy rain and therefore the responsibility of the local authority.

The households and communities looking for support do not care what type of flooding is affecting their homes and businesses, they just need help. During a flood, attention is focused on the emergency services and the Environment Agency but before, during and particularly after a flood it is the local authority that is the front line service.

The LGiU runs the Local Government Flood Forum and its members have been calling for greater devolution of responsibility and resources for flooding to local authorities. Only at the local level can there be a meaningful joining up of the different services that contribute to successful flood management. The planning system if more locally autonomous could robustly resist developments on floodplains and prevent green spaces being covered in impermeable surfaces. The local community could be more involved in decision making and only at the local authority level can the social care services link into public health, housing and transport.

There are abundant examples of local authorities helping their communities prepare for floods. For example, in Greater Manchester the local authorities cooperate to share expertise and run their own community forums to identify the views of the local communities. In Oxfordshire 60% of Parish Councils have Parish Flood Plans.

Local authorities across the country have been setting up community pathfinder projects that help establish local flood action groups made up of volunteer wardens who provide early warning alerts to vulnerable people in their communities. All large local authorities have their own flood strategy.

There has been much fanfare around recent government plans for devolution. The LGiU is aware that several local authorities have asked for flood management budgets to be devolved from the Environment Agency to them but so far no ‘deal’ has included this element.

The Government is right to state that they apply a funding formula for flooding that does not distinguish between the North and the South. However, the core pot of flood infrastructure funding is only a small part of the cost of a flood defence. The rest has to come from other infrastructure funds, businesses, local donations and council reserves. It is when these other funds are taken into account that a North/South split becomes evident. For example, London is able to draw on the funds of the Mayor’s office.

Rather than rely upon geographical luck to ensure funds are spent properly, the LGiU advocates that all large local authorities be given responsibility for the flood budget in their area and cooperate with other local authorities to ensure that floods are prevented, people are helped during floods and that recovery from flooding is as swift and as painless as possible.

Andy Johnston is LGiU’s Chief Operating Officer. This article first appeared on The Telegraph website, 30 December 2015.