Thousands of England’s flood defences in poor condition before Storm Babet hit

The state of more than 4,000 of England’s vital flood defences was rated as poor or very poor in inspections carried out by the Environment Agency last year, new data obtained by Unearthed shows.

These defences range from flood walls and embankments to outfall pipes and culverts. They protect property and lives in some of England’s most at-risk towns and cities, including areas affected by Storm Babet.

Increased flooding is one of the main risks England faces from climate change. Flood damage across the UK currently causes £700m of damage a year, according to the Association of British Insurers. Earlier this year, researchers estimated that could rise by a fifth if global warming continues.

According to data obtained by Unearthed under freedom of information rules, of England’s 64,000 “high consequence” flood defences, 4,200 were rated as being in either poor or very poor condition by the environmental watchdog in 2022 – 7% of the total. Of these, nearly 900 were judged to be in very poor condition.

Only 3% of all England’s high-consequence flood defences were deemed to be in “very good” condition while a third were classed as “good”. The majority – 57% – were rated to be in “fair” condition.

Commenting on the findings, Greenpeace UK’s senior climate campaigner, Paul Morozzo, said: 

“Our crumbling flood defences are a symbolic and literal demonstration of the government’s failure to tackle the climate crisis. Storm Babet was a sobering reminder that the climate crisis is on our doorstep and that the cost – both in terms of lives lost and damage caused – is huge.

“Without bold action to cut emissions as fast as possible, extreme storms and flooding will become more common and more intense. And without the necessary investment and upgrades, our flood defences will continue to fail.

“By rowing back on its climate commitments and failing to ensure we have infrastructure needed to mitigate its impacts, the government has all but given up on the communities it is supposed to protect. This is a shameful dereliction of duty and will cost votes in the coming election unless Sunak has the guts to change direction.”

While the majority of England’s vital flood defences are maintained by the EA, over a quarter are privately owned and maintained by unnamed “third parties”. The data shows that privately owned defences are nearly twice as likely to be in poor condition: 1,500 of privately owned defences – 9% of the total – were in a poor or very poor condition last year, compared with just 5% of assets maintained by the EA.

Unearthed has previously reported there is little oversight over privately owned defences, with some local authorities not knowing who owns them and the EA lacking powers to compel owners to properly look after them.

The environmental watchdog told Unearthed that it routinely inspects flood defences and when there is danger of a flood, emergency repairs are carried out. It clarified that when an asset is below required condition, it does not necessarily mean that it has structurally failed, or that performance in a flood is compromised.

Read the full investigation here.