Climate change: councils in England spend almost £1.7bn fighting flooding and coastal erosion

In the week that the United Nations published a stark warning on the “unequivocal” impact of human activity on the climate, NationalWorld’s investigation shows the climate emergency is already making itself felt on local authority purse strings.

Local authorities in England have spent almost £1.7 billion fighting flooding and coastal erosion over the last decade, an exclusive analysis of the spiralling costs of climate change by NationalWorld can reveal.

Flooding and coastal change has been identified by the UK Parliament’s Climate Change Committee as one the greatest climate change risks facing the UK, both now and in the future.

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Now, analysis of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) data has revealed the cost of flood defences to councils and other local authorities has almost tripled during the last decade.

Spending to protect the coast from being encroached by rising sea levels has increased by almost two-thirds during the same period.

NationalWorld’s analysis follows a parliamentary select committee inquiry earlier this year, which called on the Government to ensure councils are “properly resourced” to meet the future pressures of climate change on flood and coast defences.

Committee members said they were “very concerned” by evidence of a lack of consistent resources for councils.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, has called for more funding to be devolved to local authorities, which it says are best placed to fight the “devastating” impact of floods on homes and businesses.

An increase of 176%

In 2010-11, MHCLG data shows local authorities spent £45.8 million on coast protection and £44.1 million on flood defences.

But by 2019-20, that had risen to £85.6 million and £143.5 million respectively.

After adjusting the 2010-11 figures for inflation, that gives a real terms increase of 59% for coast protection and a whopping 176% for flood defences.

The Government says it is building more defences to protect communities - but the National Flood Forum says this will be “pointless” without funding to maintain existing ones as worsening weather takes its toll on them

Coast protection spending totalled £690.7 million in cash terms over the decade and flood defence spending £994.1 million – giving a combined total of £1.68 billion.

Spending by central government and the Environment Agency (EA) on defences is not included.

Who helps councils fund it?

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report published in March shows the MHCLG has been allocated £33.5 million to pass onto local authorities with flood management responsibilities between 2020-21 and 2021-22 – a fraction of the amount they actually spent in 2019-20.

But this is not ring-fenced, and forms part of the overall pot of funding councils receive from central government every year to provide services for residents.

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Councils can also apply for funding from the EA – which gets the bulk of taxpayer money for flood defences. The EA awards the funding on behalf of DEFRA.

The council spending data does not show how much of their costs over the last 10 years were covered by such funding.

But EA records show it allocated only £492 million of its £2.2 billion government funding between 2015-16 and 2019-20 to other ‘risk management authorities’, which includes councils as well as other bodies such as water 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.

The Local Government Association says the EA bidding process disadvantages smaller and rural areas, who are unable to compete for funding against larger councils.

An investigation by the Press Association in 2016 also found the process was skewed towards wealthier areas in the south of England, with a cost-benefit approach to awards meaning protecting higher value property is prioritised – something the LGA says persists today.

NationalWorld’s analysis meanwhile shows the cost burden of fighting flooding is greatest in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Councils there spent £291.9 million on flood defences during the decade – far outstripping the £162.7 million spent by the South West, which came in second – with spending rising by a massive 436%.

“Significant” contributions needed from councils

Council spending data is split into two sections – revenue expenditure, which covers day-to-day costs like employee salaries and repairs, and capital expenditure, which is spending on new infrastructure, such as completing big construction projects.

In March 2020, the Government announced it was doubling the capital funding it gives to the EA to finance infrastructure projects over a six-year period, from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion. That will cover 2021 to 2027.

But the EA has warned “significant” contributions will still be needed from local authorities and private partners to build and maintain the necessary flood and coast defences over that period.

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Increases in both flood and coastal defence spending by councils over the last decade have been largely driven by a surge in capital expenditure. That could involve things such as building seawalls, planting vegetation to drain water, or installing tidal barriers.

Capital expenditure on coast protection rose by 103% in real terms over the decade, from £33 million to £67.1 million, while expenditure on flood defences rose by 310%, from £25.5 million to £104.7 million.

But there was also an increase of 47.1% in revenue expenditure on flood defences, from £26.4 million in 2010-11 to £38.8 million in 2019-20. Spending had risen as high as £43.1 million in 2016-17, when serious flash floods blighted much of the UK.

Revenue spending on coast protection fell by 11.5%.

“Pointless” without money for repairs

The National Flood Forum has warned that increased capital investment for new defences would be “pointless” if enough revenue funding is not provided to maintain and repair existing ones – many of which are in a bad condition and have been breached in recent years.

Building more flood and coast defences will only increase the amount of money needed for maintenance and repairs, the EA said, while climate change will also accelerate the deterioration of defences.

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A 2020 report by government spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) found that DEFRA fails to assess whether councils have adequate funding to cover the level of flood risk they face.

DEFRA says it is down to councils to prioritise their spending and make decisions locally, adding that they can raise money to fund projects without government help.

What do councils say?

The Local Government Association said flooding can devastate communities and lead to  huge clean up bills, and called for a greater role for local authorities to address the risk.

Cllr David Renard, environment spokesperson for the LGA said: “Councils are best placed to ensure that flood defence money is directed towards projects that best reflect local needs, including protecting key roads and bridges to keep local residents and businesses moving.

“Funding for flood defences needs to be devolved to local areas and sit within a new national framework for addressing the climate emergency.

“Net zero can only be achieved if decarbonisation happens in every place, community and household.

“Long-term funding for councils would mean they can properly plan a holistic pipeline of activity that meets the needs of their local communities as a whole.”

What does the Government say?

A DEFRA spokesperson said it will create around 2,000 new flood and coastal defences with its record £5.2 billion investment 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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