Analysis

Somerset effect will force rethink on flood defence cost benefit assumptions

Somerset Levels in flood

With the Somerset Levels still under water after a month, the row about maintenance of local drainage is calling into question the whole basis of Environment Agency cost benefit analysis when assessing where to invest in flood defence and alleviation schemes.

Focus of the CBA mirrors the EA's legal duty to protect people and property; farmland, even the most fertile and productive,  is bottom of the list. This skews investment towards towns.

How long the more sparsely populated areas can be expected to tolerate being cut off by floodwater is currently not part of the equation but may need to become so. Stories of 80 year olds isolated by freezing water through the darkest days of winter, others of people wading chest deep for weeks through floods to get to work require a humanitarian response.

"Because of the cost benefit analysis Leeds got the money. And the money always will go to towns". Jean Venables 

But perhaps more significantly they have a huge political impact, something Environment Secretary Owen Paterson learned in some uncomfortable confrontations when he visited the Levels on Monday.

No UK government can afford to let the disaster in Somerset happen to the rural parts of its population on a regular basis. It will need to find ways to afford to protect them.

The dispute in Somerset is focused around the dredging of two rivers – the Parrett and the Tone – which are key to drainage on the Somerset Levels.

According to chief executive of the Association of Drainage Authorities Jean Venables the rivers have suffered from an Environment Agency policy that desilting is never any good. But dredging does work for some rivers and would make a difference here, she says.

"No UK government can afford to let the disaster in Somerset happen to the rural parts of its population on a regular basis. It will need to find ways to afford to protect them."

The last time the work was carried out was over 20 years ago. The project is back on the books but needs a £2M contribution towards its £4M cost. “When Government announced it was giving the Environment Agency an extra £165M in 2012 we had hoped that at least £2M would go to Somerset,” Venables says. “But because of the cost benefit analysis Leeds got the money. And the money always will go to towns because Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a big target to reduce flooding to properties."

In the recent extreme weather the Levels would have flooded but the water should have run off into the rivers within a few days, Venables maintain. “But because the rivers are reduced almost to half capacity because they have not been maintained that hasn’t happened,” she says. Lack of dredging is nothing to do with an over focus on habitat and wildlife protection by the Environment Agency according to Venables. “It is all about cost benefit.”

The EA disputes that dredging would have made a significant difference in the current crisis. “Dredging would not have solved the problem,” EA chairman Chris Smith told the BBC Today programme on Tuesday. But he admitted it would very likely be part of the solution in the future. The Agency, drainage authorities and local council have been given six weeks to come up with a long term answer for keeping the Levels dry by Paterson.

Cost of the flooding in Somerset will be very significant, however. When the water does subside apart from serious damage to property, one major road – the A361 will have to be rebuilt along with most of the country lanes.

The opportunity for internal drainage boards to fund flood alleviation investment themselves will be constrained in the future, Venables says. IDBs exist in areas of the country like the Somerset Levels which have special drainage needs.

The new Local Authority and Accountability Bill which is about to become law places special levy funding for IDB schemes within a cap that requires a local referendum if council tax is to be raised higher than a Government set amount. IDBs will have to fight for their funds with other council departments like education and social care.

“This will leave the country vulnerable,” she says. “My advice would be to take the IDBs outside the cap, but it may be too late.”

 

Jean Venables has been interviewed for a File on 4 programme on flooding due to air on 11 February on Channel 4.

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email jackie.whitelaw@infrastructure-intelligence.com.