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Communities set to have a greater say with flood defence spending

Ian Heijne | 10 Feb 2016 | Comments

The Environment Secretary Liz Truss recently promoted a scheme being rolled out in Somerset which allows the local authority to increase council tax to pay for flood prevention measures. This important initiative (while challenging) paves the way for communities to have a much greater say in spending and flood mitigation decisions that are implemented locally.

Traditional views are that flood mitigation is a government problem, so Liz Truss’ support gives councils in Cumbria a way to introduce a similar arrangement, and other councils will no doubt be looking on with interest. If the scheme goes ahead, Somerset’s shadow precept could see the average council tax bill in the area increase by around £15 from April.

In my opinion, there are numerous benefits to having local residents engage and decide how their homes, towns and outlying areas are protected from flooding. For a start, it makes more money available to be spent on more schemes, and more resources can be made available to help in the emergency response.

I’d like to see the investment being led/spent by the community steering group (appointed by the community, a bit like school governors) to decide who and how to develop a scheme. The only requirement would be a ‘technical approver’ assigned by the council to sign off the solution.

This type of approach would override current government guidance which requires investment in flood defences to demonstrate a benefit cost ratio of 8:1, very steep when compared with, say, transport which has a ratio of 2:1.

I really believe flooding is a community challenge. With local empowerment, residents can learn and understand much more about the science and choose how and where to invest their tax money, which has the potential to see them much better prepared when a flood occurs.

It would also play to the majority of people who remain unaffected by flooding, and while having sympathy, may wonder how we can justify spending more of the Chancellor’s tax receipts on this issue.

Of course local decision making has its problems. Flood mitigation has no single solution and therefore local agreement on what is best within communities would need carefully handling, but I believe the professional flood risk community can support this. Some of the community action I see around the world demonstrates the importance of community education and involvement to make people safer during extreme flood risk.

I think it’s a good idea to give councils control of tax and spending for flood defences, with input from the rest of the community about which measures are implemented. I think it could lead to much higher levels of investment and community engagement, with industry experts still giving good advice to help make communities more resilient to flooding events.