Councils have spent almost £1.7bn on flood and coast erosion defences over the last decade, NationalWorld’s exclusive analysis has revealed
English councils are already dealing with the escalating costs of the climate crisis and need more resources from the Government if they are to protect their communities from extreme weather.
That is the reaction of campaigners to an investigation by NationalWorld into local authority spending on flood defences and coastal protection, which has revealed the spiralling costs of climate change on public purse strings.
The analysis of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) data found spending on flood defences by local authorities rose by 176% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2019-20, while the costs of protecting the coast from encroachment by the sea increased by 59%.
Spending across the two areas totalled almost £1.7 billion over the decade – at a time when councils faced unprecedented spending pressures due to the central government programme of austerity.
But current government funding for councils is “too fragmented, too complex, and too little”, according to campaigner Sandra Bell from the charity Friends of the Earth.
Green Party peer Natalie Bennett said NationalWorld’s findings “put into context the latest report on the climate emergency from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”.
Scientists working on the IPCC report, published earlier this week, assessed all the available science on climate change.
They concluded it was “unequivocal” that human activity is warming the planet and causing rapid and widespread changes to land, atmospheric and ocean environments.
Baroness Bennet said: "We’re seeing in Westminster a few political dinosaurs grumbling about the costs of climate action, but it is clear we are already witnessing the high cost of past inaction.
"The IPCC makes it crystal clear that the costs of coastal and flood protection will increase further.
“Sea level rise, increased intensity of storms, and heavy bursts of rainfall are already ‘built in’ from previous emissions.
“But if we’re to keep the financial, human and environmental costs to a minimum, we have to act on a systemic scale to slash emissions.”
No ring-fenced funding
Local authorities receive no ring-fenced funding to tackle flooding or coastal erosion despite having statutory duties to prepare local flood risk management strategies.
They can bid for funding from the Environment Agency (EA) for new infrastructure projects.
But the allocation process has faced criticism, including accusations that a focus on the financial value of property protected by defences favours wealthier areas in the south of England, where the cost-benefit ratio is deemed to be greater.
Between 2015-16 and 2019-20 the EA said it allocated £492 million to other ‘risk management authorities’, which includes councils as well as other bodies such as water and sewerage companies.
During that time, councils alone said they spent £821.8 million on infrastructure projects – plus an extra £274.9 million on day-to-day costs like employee salaries or repairs and maintenance of existing defences.
In 2011 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – on whose behalf the EA administers funding – changed the way money was allocated, so that projects were no longer fully-funded by central government.
Instead, local authorities are expected to follow a partnership approach, with the EA meeting some of the costs of successful bids and the rest contributed by councils or else raised by them from third parties.
The EA also finances its own projects.
Ms Bell said it was clear “the impacts of the climate emergency are already happening”, as the IPCC report had warned.
‘Critical’ flood defences
“Unless world leaders show the urgency required, things are set to get much worse with more wildfires, violent storms and flooding,” she said.
“Local authorities have a central role to play in both building a zero carbon future, and dealing with the consequences of the escalating climate crisis.
“Flood defences are set to become even more critical, so it’s essential that councils are given the necessary resources to meet the escalating cost of protecting increasingly vulnerable communities.”
The Government has doubled the EA’s budget for the 2021-2027 period compared to the previous six years, from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion.
But the EA has warned that “significant” contributions will still be needed by councils to build and maintain enough defences.
A DEFRA spokesperson said it will create around 2,000 new flood and coastal defences with its record £5.2 billion investment to the EA in 2021-2027, which will better protect 336,000 properties in England.
They said: “We are working closely with local authorities in England to implement this – as they are best placed to understand their coastline and to develop the most appropriate approaches to manage risk through Shoreline Management Plans and their local planning policies.”
The Government is ensuring councils in England have the resources they need, they added, citing an increase in overall funding for local authorities to deliver services this year.
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