Revealed: one third of England’s vital flood defenses are in private hands | Flood

A third of England’s main flood defenses are in private hands, a study has found, with more than 1,000 found in poor condition, and some risk “complete performance failure”.

Private owners cannot be forced to make upgrades to the defense, which could involve bills of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The government admits that it can only “encourage” third-party owners to carry out maintenance, although the Danish Environmental Protection Agency can carry out emergency repairs if there is a risk to people, property or the environment, and try to invoice the owners afterwards.

Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative branch, and shared with the Guardian, show that privately owned assets classified as “high impact” are twice as likely to be in poor condition as those maintained. by the Environment Agency, with 8% or 1,109 of private defense rated as sub-pairs.

The fortifications range from flood walls or ramparts to dams and piers, although many are outlet pipes or culverts – closed watercourses that run under roads, railways or other property.

Some are owned by large landowners such as the Crown Estate or Network Rail. Others run under private houses and businesses, often unnoticed, until something goes wrong. In 2014, a father and son in Waterlooville, Hampshire, were put on a £ 150,000 bill to repair a culvert that went under their properties.

Flood protection with high consequences are the most important because they “help to manage the flood risk in a place where the consequence for people and property of an asset’s failure is great”, according to the Danish Environmental Protection Agency.

The defense is inspected and then judged from mode 1 to 5, where 1 means “very good”. Four are “bad”, with “defects that would significantly reduce asset performance”, and 5 are “very bad” – “severe defects that result in complete performance failure”.

There is no public record of who owns or maintains private flood defenses in England, and local authorities are often ignorant. To build a partial picture of private ownership, Unearthed took data from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency and overlaid them with data from the cadastral register and other sources.

Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire, which dealt with bad floods during Storm Ciara in 2020, said it did not know who owned the 23 privately owned fortifications in its area that were rated as bad or very bad. The local authority in Carlisle, which has seen repeated floods in recent years, said the same about the 30 poorly rated private defenses in the city.

Even when the local authorities know the owners, they can not force them to carry out repairs. “All we can do is ask nicely,” said James Mead, a flood and water chief in Sheffield City Council, who said he contacted private owners by looking at Google Maps and cross-references with data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

About 29 fortifications rated as bad or very bad throughout England are on land owned by the Crown Estate, the Queen’s property manager. A spokesman said the estate did not own the fortifications or was responsible for their maintenance, but did not respond when asked was responsible.

“Where flood defenses have been installed by third parties on crown land, we will always work with the relevant authorities to offer any assistance we can to ensure they are able to access and maintain as needed,” the spokesman said. .

Last year, the National Audit Office said the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to strengthen England’s flood defenses was undermined by a lack of coordination between the various bodies tasked with maintaining them.

With increased flooding, one of the biggest risks facing Britain as a result of the climate crisis, this year the government announced £ 5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood and coastal risk management schemes. Private defense owners will not be eligible to receive any of this money.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 5.2 million homes and businesses in the UK are at risk of flooding and that around 700 properties are vulnerable to coastal erosion over the next 20 years.

A spokesman for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency said: “We routinely inspect both the Danish Environmental Protection Agency and third-party flood assets. Repairs are given priority where there is a threat to life and livelihood. We work closely with third-party owners to encourage them to make repairs.

“Since 2015, more than 300,000 homes have been better protected from floods on time and within budget. We have also made extensive preparations for the winter months, with thousands of frontline personnel ready to respond to a flood event should it occur.”

Olivia Blake, the minister for shadow floods, said the government needs to do more to ensure that private defense is up to scratch. “As our winters get wetter, the climate crisis will put flood defenses under greater strain,” she said. “The government must act to ensure that there are clear responsibilities and appropriate measures in place so that any flood defenses that are privately owned and crucial to the protection of the public are properly inspected and maintained.”

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