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Wednesday, 31 January, 2001, 14:39 GMT
Call for flood 'czar' to speed defences
River Ouse in Yorkshire
The floods devastated many homes and businesses
The government lacks a clear long-term approach to tackling floods like those which devastated thousands of homes across the UK last year, according to a report by MPs.

There are also calls for a senior minister to be appointed as flood 'czar' to deal with the issue and try to streamline the system for handling disasters.


People whose homes have been flooded repeatedly are right to be angry

Damian Green
The report by the cross-party Commons Agriculture Committee criticises the government's response to last autumn's floods, and calls for more funding to be given to local authorities struggling to pay for the cost of defences.

It says councils have to meet huge extra costs in dealing with sudden disasters, but then have to wait a year for funds to come through.

The number of agencies involved in flood defence is also criticised, with their planning and funding described as "Byzantine in complexity".

Accountability

The MPs complain that there is an "awkward division of responsibilities" between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, with no designated person ultimately responsible for flood and coastal defence.

They say: "The ongoing review of funding gives the government an opportunity to develop a clear, long term strategy and the means for ensuring its delivery."

The Environment Agency reported to the committee that nine local authorities were unwilling to carry out inspections in response to requests for analysis of flood defences under their responsibility.

Campaigners Marie Stewart, Paul Tate-Smith, and Di Keal from North Yorkshire
Campaigners say funding has been slow to arrive
More than 110 others had responded that they were unable to do the job because of a current lack of resources, lack of expertise resulting from withdrawal of their agency agreement with the local water company, or a combination of the two reasons.

The report concludes: "It is clear that accountability and leadership at local level is required and that either greater powers are required by the Environment Agency or stronger direction from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions."

It is the second time the committee has reported on flooding and it does show some improvement.

The committee welcomes the extra 51m government funding aimed at flood defences but says it will not be enough to clear the backlog of unbuilt schemes.

Flood scrap book

Ministers say the report is helpful but reject the claims that the government lacks a long-term strategy to protect against floods.

Agriculture minister Elliot Morley said he accepted there was a need to get flood defences in place.

But he said the government did not know whether the recent extremes of weather was a one in 100-year event, or whether they were a manifestation of long-term climatic change.

"We must prepare for that and assume that is the case because it is better to be safe than sorry," he said.

Conservative environment spokesman Damian Green accused ministers of dithering.

"The government promised us new planning guidance on flooding before Christmas, but they are still dithering at the end of January.

"People whose homes have been flooded repeatedly are right to be angry at the low priority this government has put on improving flood defences and planning for the possibility of flooding."

The report was published after families affected by the floods in North Yorkshire last year made a journey to Downing Street.

They handed in a scrap book of their experiences to the Prime Minister, highlighting the fact that funding they had been promised for flood defences had been held up in the complex process.

They fear there will be more flooding before flood protection can be built.

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See also:

06 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Minister defends flood defence record
31 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Prescott pledges to learn storm lessons
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