Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 11:53 UK

Benn denies flood plan 'chaos'

Hilary Benn on the lessons the Government has learnt

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has rejected claims by a committee of MPs that Britain's flood preparations are in a "chaotic state".

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee said the UK is still not prepared for the sort of flooding which hit much of the country last summer.

And it warned an extra 800m pledged to improve readiness was not enough.

Mr Benn said the government was already taking action in many of the areas identified in the report.

More than 55,000 homes and businesses across central, northern and South West England were devastated by last year's floods, which killed nine people and left an insurance bill of about 3bn.

'Confused and chaotic'

In its report, the select committee said there had been a "total lack of awareness" about how vulnerable many parts of the country were to flooding before the downpours.

"The public will not forgive the government if it is not seen to be responding to the lessons learnt from the floods of last summer," said Michael Jack, the committee's chairman.

"Our report has shown how confused and chaotic was the infrastructure when it came to preventing and dealing with surface water flooding."

The report said flood defence measures have been focused almost solely on river and coastal defences, with plans to cope with heavy rainfall in an "unclear and chaotic state".

No organisation had responsibility for dealing with surface water at a local or national level, and when drains began to overflow it was hard to see who was responsible for the drainage system, the committee said.

Planning changes

Ministers had repeatedly suggested the 800m a year for flood management by 2010/2011 would allow the government to deal effectively with future crises, the committee said.

But the settlement for flood defences made under the Comprehensive Spending Review was "far less impressive under close analysis", it added.

Mr Benn said he "welcomed" the committee's report but said action was already being taken to improve readiness for another major incident.

Changes to the planning laws would make it more difficult for homeowners to "concrete over" their front gardens - which he said was one of the causes of surface water flooding.

"The truth is that if we concrete over, pave over, tarmac over ground in our towns and cities and it rains like that then the drains get overwhelmed and the select committee recognises that," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"And what we need to sort out - what we had already recognised - is clarity of responsibility for making sure that the bits of the surface water drainage system fit together."

Spending 'doubled'

The right of new developments to automatically connect to the public sewerage system was also being reviewed, he added.

And the environment agency had been given "overall responsibility" for dealing with flooding and there was now a "single chain of command".

Walham electricity switching station had a close escape after last summer's floods

He denied there was a shortage of funds for flood defences.

"We've doubled the spending on flood defence in the last ten years.

"We're increasing it by about another two hundred million pounds a year by 2010-11.

"Last summer, the Association of British Insurers said we should be spending about 750m a year by 2010-11 - actually we're going to be spending 800m - and that's going to mean the environment agency has more money to spend on more flood defence schemes to protect more peoples' homes."

Meanwhile, a confidential government study seen by the BBC suggests hundreds of UK power substations and water treatment plants are potentially at risk from flooding.

The report warns that "there are likely to be hundreds of sites at the highest levels of criticality" and says that "the risks posed by natural hazards are already rising and are predicted to rise further".

It concludes that it would "be imprudent to rest on the basis that events on the lines of those which happened last summer were so infrequent as to reply on a reactive response alone".

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