Flood strategy 'at odds with Boris Johnson push for mass housing'

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty</span>
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

The government’s long-awaited strategy for tackling floods in England does not go far enough and appears to conflict with Boris Johnson’s “build, build, build” plan for more housing, experts have said.

Billed by ministers as the most comprehensive flood defence plan in a decade, the fresh approach will mean more money spent on natural solutions to counter floods, such as capturing water on fields.

But the plan, unveiled on Tuesday, stopped short of banning any new building on land at the highest risk of flooding, disappointing experts, local authorities and flood-hit communities.

Prof Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading, said the government’s pledge to review house building on floodplains did not “sound in tune” with the prime minister’s commitment to cutting red tape to build new homes more quickly under “Project Speed”.

Cloke said: “A fortnight ago Boris was attacking ‘newt counting’ and bemoaning the pace of progress in the UK. Dealing with flooding shows precisely the difficulties behind his promise to build better, faster and greener. Sometimes being better and greener requires building more slowly and carefully, or we risk long-term economic and social costs that we cannot afford.”

The government pledged in its 2020 budget to spend £5.2bn on flood defences by 2027, which it said would create about 2,000 new flood and coastal projects, and improve the protection of 336,000 properties in England.

Academics welcomed the investment in natural flood solutions, such as hollows to catch floodwater, and the government’s support for making properties more resilient to floods.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, said the government was considering giving the Environment Agency more powers to prevent building on high-risk floodplains but stopped short of saying that fewer homes should be built in these areas.

About 20,000 homes a year are built on land at the highest risk of flooding in England, equating to one in 10 of all new homes since 2013.

Planning policy says housing should be based in areas at the least risk of flooding, yet local authorities, which face penalties if they miss house-building targets, say they feel powerless to stop developments and are concerned these construction projects will only increase in number.

Heather Shepherd, of the National Flood Forum, which supports at-risk communities, said the government was “asking for problems” by continuing to build on floodplains and plug new properties into ageing infrastructure. “If you’re to think of nature as a solution then our floodplains become precious and a resource to mitigate flooding. If we build on them we’re taking away a natural way of managing flood risk,” she said.

Shaun Davies, the Labour leader of Telford and Wrekin council, Shropshire, which had weeks of floods in February, said there was little in the new government approach to reassure residents.

Davies said he raised concerns with Eustice in February about the conversion of an old power station into 1,000 new homes on the Shropshire floodplain but that that development was still going ahead.

The insurance firm Zurich said the extra cash to help flood-hit homeowners recover from damage “misses the point” and that at-risk residents need financial support to defend their homes “before extreme weather strikes – not after they have been flooded”.

Eustice said: “Our record investment and ambitious policies will better protect homes, schools, hospitals and businesses, but we also recognise that we cannot prevent flooding entirely, which is why we will ensure that communities at high risk are more resilient.”