Page last updated at 15:59 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

New measures to tackle flooding

Catcliffe near Rotherham during the 2007 floods
Villages were left under water for days during last summer's floods

Local authorities will play a key role in future flood prevention efforts in England and Wales, ministers have said.

The government will give councils in areas most at risk of flooding 15m to help assess future threats facing them.

Ministers also announced new funds for homeowners to protect their homes but the Tories said progress on flood protection had been "glacially slow".

A report into last summer's devastating floods sought "urgent and fundamental changes" to deal with the problem.

Critical report

Its author, Sir Michael Pitt, was highly critical of national preparedness for severe flooding after the 2007 deluge which left 13 people dead and 44,600 homes flooded.

Yorkshire and the Midlands were among the worst-hit, and the Humber and south-west England were also severely affected.

We can never eliminate the risk of flooding but we are determined to learn the lessons of what has happened and be better prepared in the future
Hilary Benn, Environment Secretary

Of about 17,000 families forced from their homes in England, about 1,000 were still living upstairs or in temporary accommodation earlier this month.

In response, ministers have proposed a series of measures to help local authorities prepare better for the increased risk of floods, giving them a central role in co-ordinating activity locally.

Six councils are being awarded funding immediately to draw up plans for dealing with surface water flooding from extreme rainfall.

They are: Hull, Gloucester, Warrington, Leeds, West Berkshire and Richmond in Surrey.

The councils will be responsible for assessing the risk of future flooding, identifying where it is most likely to occur and how to minimise the damage.

Other initiatives include the establishment of a national flood forecasting centre for England and Wales, to be operated jointly by the Environment Agency and the Met Office.

Elsewhere, about 5m will be set aside to help people not covered by communal flood defence schemes to protect their properties.

There will also be extra funding to improve flood rescue services and additional resources for the Environment Agency to help it map flood threats and contact people in the event of emergencies.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said 2007's floods had devastated many people's lives and the proposed measures showed how seriously the government took the issue of protecting people.

More extreme weather is an unavoidable consequence of climate change so it is imperative we ensure the country is ready to cope
Paul Bettison, Local Government Association

"We can never eliminate the risk of flooding but we are determined to learn the lessons of what has happened and be better prepared in the future," he told MPs.

For the Tories, shadow environment spokesman Peter Ainsworth said the UK was still "acutely vulnerable" to flooding, with about 2.3 million homes at risk.

He welcomed the new funding but accused ministers of "dithering" about who should take the lead over the issue of flood protection.

"There is still uncertainty about who is in charge," he said.

The Lib Dems said prior warning of flood risks was essential to dealing with the problems.

Council representatives said the funding on offer was insufficient and there must be much closer co-operation between bodies with responsibility for flood defence and protection.

"The additional 15m that has been allocated between now and 2011 will not be enough to ensure our villages, towns and cities are properly protected," said Paul Bettison, from the Local Government Association, which represents 400 councils in England and Wales.

"More extreme weather is an unavoidable consequence of climate change so it is imperative we ensure the country is ready to cope."

Clean-up costs

Sir Michael's report called on the government to set out publicly how it would make rapid progress on improving flood resilience.

One of his other main recommendations was greater clarity as to who does what during heavy flooding.

Under the new plans, local authorities will be given funding and responsibility for dealing with surface water and expected to co-ordinate their actions with the emergency services, the Environment Agency and other bodies.

The Environment Agency said the annual clean-up cost of flooding was currently about 1.1bn, but was rising.

Paul Leinster, the agency's chief executive, said: "We all need to face up to flood risk as climate change will dramatically increase the number of homes affected."

Its latest poll showed only 9% of 1,033 people living in flood-risk areas knew how to stay safe during flooding.

It also found even fewer - only 3% - had prepared a flood kit of essential items such as insurance documents, a torch, bottled water and warm clothes

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