The rising costs will be incurred from the impacts of climate change that will take effect in the coming decades, meaning the risks to homes and communities will increase unless defences are improved.
The costs of dealing with floods can run into the billions – the devastating floods of summer 2007 cost a total of £3.2bn according to the EA, including more than £2bn in costs to homeowners and businesses as well as 400,000 of lost school days. The EA estimates that 5 million people live and work in the 2.4m properties in England that are at some risk of flooding and, at present, around £570m is spent every year building and maintaining the defences required for them. Half a million of those properties are in highest risk band, which means they are at risk of flooding due to extreme weather expected once every 75 years.
Climate scientists predict that, by the 2080s, sea levels could be around 70cm higher around the southern parts of the UK, making serious storm surges and floods more frequent. Using predictions from the UK Climate Impacts Programme, the EA estimates that keeping all 2.4m at-risk homes at the existing level of flood risk for the next 25 years will cost £1bn per year by 2035. “Assuming that no new properties are adding to that risk, then that investment is to maintain the existing infrastructure and to invest to make sure it isn’t worsened, taking into account the uncertainties of climate change,” said Robert Runcie, the EA’s director of flood and coastal risk management.
“What we know from the science of climate change is that weather patterns are going to become more extreme. The risk is going to get greater and we need to up our game in response to that,” said Chris Smith, the EA chairman, in an evidence session to the House of Commons environmental audit committee (EAC) last week.
“The case for flood defence is very strong. The cost benefit of any flood defence work that we do, the benefit is at least five times the cost. The average cost to a home of being flooded is £20,000 to £30,000. The average cost to a home of being burgled is about £1000. So the damage that flooding does in terms of its impact on people’s livelihoods is huge.”
But getting this money out of government has proved difficult. “The Treasury have crawled all over our figures and have agreed that our working is absolutely in order and have agreed with the conclusions that we have reached,” said Smith. “What they have not done, of course, is commit the actual figures and that is unlikely to happen this side of an election or, I suspect, the other.”
An Treasury spokeswoman said:”The government will make decisions about the allocation of expenditure, including the allocation for flood risk management, at the next spending review.” She pointed out that spending on on flood and coastal erosion risk management had increased in recent years, from £394m in 2002-03 to £564m in 2005-06.
Not spending the money could have even bigger consequences. The EA estimates that the annual cost of damage to residential and commercial property from flooding in England could rise from £2.5bn to £4bn by 2035 without the extra cash for flood defences. Investing the money would save England some £180bn over the next 100 years.
“Even at a time of unprecedented financial pressure, this is something that has to be given a priority,” said EAC chair and Conservative MP Tim Yeo. “We could be more creative about getting private sector investment in as well. Where you’ve got new developments taking place, it’s quite legitimate in my view for the planning authority to say, look, although what we’re going to ask for [in flood defences] is not directly related to the houses or supermarket you’re putting up there, it is of concern to this community and we do need to accelerate investment in flood-prevention measures so we want to supplement what the taxpayer is being asked for with developer contributions.”
Runcie said that flood management in future would depend on careful planning and preventing the construction of new buildings on flood plains. “One of the things that’s made a huge difference on that is a change to the planning laws where, only last year, we became a formal consultee. In the last 12 months, of the thousands of applications for major developments that have been proposed, only 4% went against our recommendations.”