Thousands of England’s vital flood defences were in such a state of ruin last year they would fail to protect communities from extreme weather, an investigation has found.
More than 3,400 of England’s “high consequence” flood assets, defined as those where there is a high risk to life and property if they fail, were judged by the Environment Agency to be in such a bad condition they were almost useless.
This means that more than one in 20 of the country’s crucial flood defences were in disrepair in 2019-20, the highest proportion in years. This rose to nearly one in 10 in the regions battered by Storm Christoph last week.
The findings comes from Environment Agency data obtained by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, and shared with the Guardian. Doug Parr, the chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK, said: “The poor state of so many critical flood defences in England is putting thousands of people and homes at risk. This is unacceptable.”
Most of Britain was placed under a weather warning for snow and ice on Monday after an Arctic blast of cold air hampered the recovery effort from Storm Christoph, which caused at least 600 homes to be flooded as two months’ worth of rain fell in 48 hours in some areas.
The Environment Agency said its 2020 recovery programme inspected more than 20,000 assets and that they were “winter ready” either through repairs or, if not, “robust contingency plans are in place”. It said that 95% of its 78,000 flood assets, which range from embankments to culverts and tidal barriers, were in good condition and that repairs were prioritised when there was “significant threat to lives and livelihoods”.
The Unearthed analysis found that 3,460 of England’s most important flood defences were judged by the Environment Agency to be in a poor or very poor condition in 2019-20. This accounts for 5.9% of the total, the highest proportion in years, up from 4% in 2017-18.
Of the 3,460, 791 were judged “very poor”, meaning they had “severe defects resulting in complete performance failure”, essentially rendering them useless. The remaining 2.669 were in poor condition, meaning they have defects that would “significantly reduce” their performance.
Just under half of England’s 59,000 vital flood defences are managed by a complex array of third parties, including government departments, local authorities and private landowners. The figures show that 8% of those managed by third parties are in poor or very poor condition, compared to 4% of those overseen by the Environment Agency. In the picturesque district of Hart, in Hampshire, all of its vital flood defences are managed by third parties and nearly half are in a state of ruin.
Experts have warned that the UK faces an increased risk from more extreme and unpredictable weather owing to the climate emergency. Major floods had been expected every 15 to 20 years in the last century but in the past decade this has shortened to every two to five years.
The Environment Agency has said it needs £1bn a year to build and maintain England’s flood defences, significantly more than the £5.2bn announced by the government for 2,000 new projects up to 2027.
Parr urged ministers to increase funding to better protect England’s flood defences and stop building on high-risk floodplains. He added: “We know that the climate crisis is making our winters wetter, increasing the risk of floods across the country. We’ve had warning of the climate threat for years so there’s no excuse for not being prepared.”
In the Midlands, South Yorkshire and north-west of England, where nearly 600 homes were flooded last week, 831 of these vital defences are in a state or disrepair – 9% of the total. In Cheshire, where at least 150 people had to be rescued by firefighters last week, 16% of “high consequence” flood defences are in a poor or very poor condition, according to Environment Agency data.
Dan Jarvis, the mayor of the Sheffield city region, said residents would have to endure “sleepless nights” due to a £125m funding gap in its flood defence allocation from Whitehall.
Jarvis welcomed an additional £80m given to the region last week for flood management projects but said this was a “sticking plaster over a much bigger wound”. He has asked ministers for months to fund 27 projects that would protect 10,300 homes, 2,800 businesses as well as crucial infrastructure.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We know how flooding can devastate communities, which is why since 2015 a record figure of £2.6bn has been invested in flood schemes, better protecting 300,000 homes, and over the next six years we are doubling that investment – £5.2bn for 2,000 new defences to better protect a further 336,000 properties.”