Government spending on maintenance flood defences has fallen by 6% over the last five year, ramping up the risk of future flooding, the National Audit Office said today.
A new report from the spending watchdog found that half of the country's flood defences - more than 1350 systems - were been maintained to a 'minimal level', warning that assets would deteriorate more quickly.
An extra £270m had been made available by the government following the winter storms in 2013, including an additional £35m for the maintenance of flood defences in 2014/15 and 2015/16. But the NAO warned that these extra funds only restored maintenance support to 2010/11 levels in cash term. In real terms, funding has declined by 6% decrease since 2010/11, despite the recent cash boost.
Without this extra emergency money, total funding for flood defences decreased by 10% in real terms, the auditors said.
The NAO warned that, as climate change increased, sustaining the current standard of flood protection would be 'challenging'. It did, however, acknowledge that the Environment Agency had improved the cost effectiveness and prioritisation of its flood risk spending.
NAO head Amyas Morse said: 'Against a background of tight resources, the agency has improved how it prioritises its spending, including on the maintenance of flood defences. On this measure the agency is achieving value for money.
'However, if we set aside the emergency spending in response to last year's floods, and give due credit for efficiency improvements, the underlying spending on flood defences has gone down.'
Morse said the Environment Agency would need to make difficult decisions about whether to continue maintaining defences in some areas or let them lapse. This would increase both the risk of future floods and requirements for more expensive ad-hoc emergency solutions.
'The achievement of value for money in the long term remains significantly uncertain,' he added.
An Environment Agency spokesman commented: 'We are on track to reduce flood risk to 165,000 properties between 2011 and 2015 and we will continue to invest in those activities that contribute most to reduce the risk of flooding per pound of funding we receive.
'Following the 2013 spending review, we have a long-term, six-year capital settlement to continue to improve flood risk management infrastructure. This will allow us to make record levels of investment in capital projects and with this investment we aim to reduce flood risk to a further 300,000 properties.'
Responding to the report, the Association of British of Insurers said the most effective way to protect against flooding from rivers and the sea is with well-maintained defences adding that cuts in funding to look after them significantly undermined their effectiveness.
ABI assistant director of property Aidan Kerr said: 'To better protect the UK against the effects of our changing climate, the government needs to commit to funding the £500m shortfall between current spending on flood defences and what is needed, as identified by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), and to commit to long term increases in funding for flood risk management with a focus on those areas with the highest chance of flooding.'
Last week, the CCC said the government and insurers should collaborate on a plan to reduce flood risk, after finding that the uptake of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in new development was low.
It said: 'The government and the insurance industry should agree a strategy for how the "Flood Re" scheme will be used to incentivise and support additional action by high risk households. This would help insurance to remain affordable as the scheme is withdrawn.'
The committee also suggested that the government should publish new flood defence funding scenarios in this year's Autumn Statement, making clear the long-term implications of current spending plans.