Activities to reduce likelihood of flooding
The Environment Agency is responsible for operating, maintaining and replacing an estimated £20 billion worth of flood risk management (FRM) installations. According to a report by consultants in 2001, these are estimated to prevent annual average damage costs of approximately £3.5 billion. The Agency also invests in improving or providing new installations in areas where there remains a high risk of flooding, particularly where, because of the possible consequences, the damage risk is the highest. Recent examples of major defences against coastal flooding include the Thames Barrier, and recent examples of major inland flood prevention schemes include the Jubilee River.
Activities to reduce consequences of flooding
The Environment Agency provides flood forecasting and warning systems and maintains maps of areas liable to flood, as well as preparing emergency plans and responding when an event occurs. The Environment Agency carries out an advisory function in development control – commenting on planning applications within flood risk areas, providing advice to assist planning authorities in ensuring that any development is carried out in line with the National Planning Policy Framework. The agency provides technical advice on the flood risk assessment that must be submitted with most planning applications in flood risk areas. The Agency also runs public awareness campaigns to inform those at risk who may be unaware that they live in an area that is prone to flooding, as well as providing information about what the flood warning codes and symbols mean and how to respond in the event of a flood. The agency operates Floodline, a 24-hour telephone helpline on flooding. Floodline covers England, Wales and Scotland but not Northern Ireland, and provides information and advice including property flood-risk checks, flood warnings, and flood preparation advice.
In partnership with the Met Office it runs the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC) which provides warnings of flooding which may affect England and Wales. Formed in 2009, the FFC is based in the Operations Centre at the Met Office headquarters in Exeter.
Since the establishment of the Environment Agency several major flood events have occurred and the Agency has been the target of criticism. A number of reports have been produced which chart various developments in flood management.
Easter 1998 Floods and Bye report
At Easter 1998, the equivalent of one months rain fell in the Midlands in 24 hours and flooding caused £400m damage and five deaths. In the light of criticism, the Agency commissioned a report from a review team under the Chairmanship of Peter Bye, a former chief executive of Suffolk CC. The report concluded that in many respects, the Environment Agency's policies, plans and operational arrangements were sound, and that staff did their best in extreme circumstances, but there were instances of unsatisfactory planning, inadequate warnings for the public, incomplete defences and poor co-ordination with emergency services. Specifically the report highlighted the flood warning system and said the scale of the damage could have been avoided if the agency had issued more advice to those living in the worst affected areas and noted "People who do not understand what they can do to protect themselves when they are warned are not protected."
Autumn 2000 Floods and Learning to Live with Rivers
In the Autumn 2000 floods, damage was reduced by flood defences and by timely warnings and evacuations where the defences could not hold back the water. As a result, 280,000 properties were protected from the floods, but over 10,000 properties were still flooded at an estimated cost of £1 billion. Defra commissioned an independent review by the Institution of Civil Engineers under George Fleming. The review was to consider methods of estimating and reducing flood risk and look at whether flood risk management could make more use of natural processes. Other terms of reference included the possible impact of climate change and experience of other countries. The resulting report entitled Learning to Live with Rivers specifically criticised a reluctance to use computer models and inadequate representation of the dynamic effects of land use, catchment processes and climatic variability. More broadly, the report noted that sustainable flood risk management could only be achieved by working with the natural response of the river basin and by providing the necessary storage, flow reduction and discharge capacity. It concluded that floods can only be managed, not prevented, and the community must learn to live with rivers.
June 2007 National Audit Office report
On 15 June 2007 the National Audit Office produced a report on the performance of the Environment Agency with respect to its administrative targets and information systems. The report highlighted that the Environment Agency had not reached its targets for maintaintaining flood defence systems and producing catchment area plans, and that since 2001 the general conditions of assets had not improved significantly. It concluded the agency could reduce the need for extra funding by improving cost effectiveness.
On the basis of the report, and to the background of the Summer 2007 floods, on 27 June 2007 the Committee of Public Accounts under Edward Leigh subjected the Environment Agency management to severe interrogation and concluded that the agency had "not delivered protection for the British people". Issuing a strong response, the chief executive rejected the charge that the Environment Agency has massively failed, as alleged in the commons public accounts committee, noting that in the last seven years, defences had been created to protect 100,000 homes in floodplains, numbers receiving flood warning had dramatically increased and greatly improved flood mapping and forecasting had been implemented.
Summer 2007 Floods and the Pitt Review
Following the 2007 United Kingdom floods, which left 13 people dead, 44,600 homes flooded and caused £3bn damage, Defra announced an independent review by Sir Michael Pitt.
The Environment Agency directors attracted criticism when it emerged that shortly before the floods they had received five-figure "performance bonuses", with numerous calls for the bonuses to be donated to flood relief funds. An opposition spokesperson raised a question over the timing of the release of the information—"just as MPs left for their 11-week summer recess—guaranteeing minimum parliamentary scrutiny".
Pitt's review, published in full in June 2008 contained 92 recommendations looking at all aspects of the "biggest civil emergency in British history". Of these, thirteen were directed at the Environment Agency, the first of which stated that the Environment Agency should take on a national overview of all flood risk. It recommended the Environment Agency should further develop its modelling tools and techniques working with its partners on such, and also make flood visualisation data more accessible. It recommended closer working with the Met Office. The Agency should provide a more specific flood warning system for infrastructure operators, work with local responders to raise awareness in flood risk areas and work with telecoms companies to roll out telephone flood warning schemes. Other recommendations were that the Environment Agency should continue its existing processes.
The review also argued that the Government's £800 million-a-year flood defence budget for 2010 to 2011 was "about right" but stated that money should be spent more wisely. Sir Michael said: "What we are arguing is that we were not well prepared last summer for the scale of flooding that took place."
After the 2007 floods, the present organisation of flood management in England and Wales, with a large number of separate bodies responsible for different components, was called into question. George Fleming, who chaired the committee which produced the Learning to Live with Rivers report argued that the Environment Agency had too many roles and faced too great a conflict between its roles as habitat protector and planning regulator and suggested it was time to break it up and create a dedicated Flood Management Agency. On leaving her post as CEO in June 2008 Barbara Young responded to these suggestions, predicting that the Pitt report was unlikely to recommend the break-up of the Environment Agency.
Winter 2013-14 Floods
The Environment Agency and its then chair Chris Smith was involved with a row with Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and other members of the government, and landowners and residents in Somerset. The row focused on the flooding of the Somerset Levels and whether the River Parrett should be dredged.
Winter 2015-16 Floods
The Environment Agency, responsible for main river maintenance, was criticised for failures which led to flooding following a period of heavy rainfall in December 2015 (Storm Desmond, Storm Eva) across northern England and parts of Scotland. In particular, the decision to open a barrier on the River Foss resulted in flooding of supposedly protected houses. Additionally, the Environment Agency was accused of misleading the public by stating that its chairman Philip Dilley was “at home with his family” when he was at his wife's family home in Barbados. In the days following the floods, it was reported that Agency staff responsible for protecting the UK from flooding were paid almost £300,000 in bonuses or received large payoffs in 2015, notably the Environment Agency's publicity chief who lead the press team who tried to cover-up their Chairman's absence; Pam Gilder quit with a £112,000 pay-off.
The extent of damage caused in such a short period across wide areas has brought into focus the overall performance of UK central government flood defence strategies. Expensive flood defence systems were proven ineffective and in some cases appeared to increase the problem. Professor Dieter Helm, Chair of the UK government's Natural Capital Committee stated in January 2016: "Flooding crises tend to follow an established pattern. First, there is immediate help and assistance. Then second, there is a “review”. On occasions, this leads to a third stage of genuine reform, but in most cases “sticking plasters” are applied. These are incremental and often sensible, but typically fail to address the core issues and hence provide only a temporary respite. There are very good reasons why ”sticking plasters” will not work this time. The conventional approach to flood defence, carried out by the Environment Agency (EA), and financed largely by the Treasury, is at best inefficient. Sometimes it is even counterproductive, encouraging the sorts of land use and land management decisions that can actually make flooding worse in the medium term." The UK government House of Commons Select Committee for the environment challenged the Chief Executive Officer of the Environment Agency on its performance by stating: “You [Sir James Bevan, CEO] said "The capacity of a river doesn't matter!" You've got to be certain the leopard has changed its spots. And I will keep repeating this. You haven't really given us an answer as to whether you have monitored the situation. I'm fearful. You allowed the River Parrett [Somerset] to silt up, you allowed the Tone to silt up, you allowed the tributaries to silt up, and then it flooded.” The Committee added: “The EA don't provide [quotes for work] when doing projects so we can't compare like with like [with other project providers]. There is an argument for transparency on your spending... You say the right words and hold onto your power."
Sir Philip Dilley resigned as chairman of the Environment Agency on 11 January 2016. Sir Philip stated he was stepping down because “expectations” of his role have changed to mean he has to be “available at short notice throughout the year”.