Anger Over Government Flood Defence Plans in Yorkshire

8 September 2016, 14:29 | Updated: 8 September 2016, 14:35

Flood victims have criticised the Government's approach to preventing flooding, labelling a package of measures as "Elastoplast''.

The criticism comes after ministers published a long-awaited review, set up after devastating floods last winter across parts of northern England, assessing how the country could be better protected from future flooding and increasing extreme weather.

Storms last December inflicted misery on parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria, where in some places flood defences did not work, forcing thousands of people from their homes over Christmas. Some have still not been able to return.

The National Flood Resilience Review outlines £12.5 million for temporary defences such as barriers and high-volume water pumps, to be held at seven strategic locations around the country.

By next winter the Environment Agency will have four times more temporary barriers than last year.

The report includes commitments from utilities to increase protection of key local infrastructure such as phone networks and water treatment works, including short-term plans to stockpile and deploy temporary defences at sites.

It also sets out a new stress test of the risk of flooding from rivers and seas around England, linking Met Office forecasts of extreme rainfall scenarios with Environment Agency modelling for the first time.

The Government said it would use the evidence of the review to plan investment in flood defences after 2021.

It has already committed £2.5 billion between 2015 and 2021 to strengthen flood and coastal defences, as well as spending #1 billion on maintaining defences, officials said.

But Dr Stephen Gibbs, chairman of the Carlisle Flood Action Group, suggested the Environment Agency (EA) was simply not equipped to do the job of tackling flooding and that the whole problem needs a re-think and change in approach.

The university lecturer, who lives in Carlisle, Cumbria, with his wife and two children and has been flooded out twice, said: "Flooding is the biggest threat to life and limb in the UK since World War Two.

"The issue is Government statutory powers to say 'We will defeat flooding'.

"The Environment Agency have a pattern - they have a flood, they have a review, then they get out the Elastoplast and hope for the best until the next flood.

"Temporary flood defences are part of the filibustering that the EA are having to do.

"The Dutch defeated flooding because their senior politicians sat down and said 'How can we defeat this?' And they defeated flooding.''

Dr Gibbs said local councils had some responsibilities for flood defences but they were "hanging on by the skin of their teeth'' while the EA is responsible for everything from issuing fishing licences and boat permits and not equipped to deal with an issue needing "a large-scale strategic approach''.

He said a cross-party approach involving senior politicians was needed for a "root-and- branch'' change to the way Government approaches the problem of flooding.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: " £12.5 million for temporary flood defences is a drop in the ocean when the review concludes that winter rainfall could increase by up to 30% in future in parts of the UK - signalling politicians' acceptance that the climate is changing radically.

"This is a huge increase in rainfall on top of the unprecedented extreme weather that caused such suffering last winter, and will put thousands more homes and businesses at risk.

"Yet the review ducks a commitment to higher long-term investment in defences, and contains nothing on working with nature to reduce flooding, such as planting trees,'' he said, calling on Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom to address these challenges.

Ms Leadsom said: "Last winter we saw just how devastating flooding can be.

"This review sets out clear actions so we are better prepared to respond quickly in the event of future flooding and can strengthen the nation's flood defences.''

And she said: "We are absolutely committed to reducing the risk of flooding by investing £2.5 billion up to 2021 so we can help protect families, homes and businesses this winter.''

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, added: "The extra funding will help us to do even more for local communities so that we can better protect homes and businesses and respond even more rapidly and flexibly when extreme weather strikes.''

Storms last December saw parts of the UK receive dramatic amounts of rainfall, with 13.44in (34cm) falling in Honister, Cumbria, in 24 hours, with experts saying extreme rain was more likely as a result of climate change.

The new review said the Met Office has concluded that winter monthly rainfall totals could plausibly be 20% higher than recent past extremes in some parts of the country and up to 30% higher in other parts.

It warned that, in the next decade, there was a "non-negligible chance'' of similar or even greater scale than the floods last year or those which left parts of Somerset under water for weeks in the winter of 2013/2014.

The Government will look at ways of managing water in the natural environment to reduce flooding, with a pilot scheme in Cumbria, it said.

The chairman of a partnership set up to improve the economic and community life of one of the worst-hit towns described the review as "shockingly disappointing''.

Bob Deacon said a huge amount of work had gone on in Hebden Bridge and other flood-hit communities in West Yorkshire's Calder Valley focused on solutions involving changes to the management of the surrounding moorland.

But Mr Deacon, who chairs the Hebden Bridge Partnership, said: "There are only two sentences about all that - on the last page.''

He said: "An opportunity has simply not been taken to assess this impact. It's abysmal. It's really shocking.''

Mr Deacon said he was hoping the review would include discussion of measures to force water companies operating reservoirs to have as much legal duty to reduce flood risk as they did to provide drinking water.

He said: "As a policy issue, it's simply not there. It's quite shockingly disappointing.''

He said it seemed that the temporary flood protection measures outlined in the report mainly related to safeguarding vital infrastructure, such a power stations, and he feared they would not be available to protect the kinds of businesses and homes that were inundated in his town in December.

He said about 90% of affected businesses in Hebden Bridge were now open again. Many had installed flood resilience measures paid for by money raised locally, Mr Deacon added.

Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake said: "Leeds is barely mentioned in this report, which really does smack of the Government not taking the risk here seriously.

"Storm Eva caused absolute devastation for residents and businesses in Leeds, with many still recovering.

"The people of Leeds need the new Secretary of State to come out and confirm she will stick to the promises made to the city by her predecessor earlier this year - namely that funding will be made available to provide protection from the River Aire upstream from Leeds station along the Kirkstall Road corridor.

"The silence on this is becoming increasingly concerning, especially as the report says flood defences for cities are now only the 'ultimate aim', as opposed to the 'whatever it takes' line previously used by government.''

Ms Blake was the most prominent voice after the floods to argue that there was a North-South divide in the response.

"As we know to our cost, there has been a severe lack of long-term planning when it comes to funding for flood defences and there is nothing in this report to offer comfort on that level,'' she said.

"What we can't have is a repeat of what happened with the cancelled flood defences in Leeds in 2011, so I have invited the Secretary of State to visit so she can meet some of the residents and businesses so badly affected by Storm Eva, although I still await her response.''