Homes at risk amid flood defence row

THOUSANDS of homes are at the mercy of heavy rains and high seas because public bodies cannot agree on funding for urgent repairs to the region's “perilous” sea flood defences.

THOUSANDS of homes are at the mercy of heavy rains and high seas because public bodies cannot agree on funding for urgent repairs to the region's “perilous” sea flood defences.

Householders living along the Essex coast could be facing an environmental catastrophe after the Government changed its criteria for doling out cash for coastal defence repairs.

If this winter is as severe as some fear - and if bureaucrats are still squabbling over budgets - the bill for possible damage to business and property could run into millions, one senior councillor warned yesterday.

Harry Shearing, Tendring District Council's cabinet member responsible for flood strategy, has urged the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to rethink a recent change to its point-scoring system for grant aid which has forced the cash-strapped authority to delay necessary repairs in Holland-on-Sea.

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Mr Shearing's concerns, which will be raised at a council cabinet meeting on Wednesday, come amid increasing anxiety that Defra is shifting its attention away from sea defences to inland river flood protection measures.

Responsibility for flood defences rests with a number of bodies depending on the height of the ground around the barrier.

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Where sea defences are deemed merely to be a protection against coastal erosion and are above actual sea level, local councils are in charge of repairs and maintenance.

The Environment Agency takes responsibility for protection of low-lying defences - the majority of the Essex coast.

These bodies then compete for annual Defra funding and are also represented on the Essex Local Flood Defence Committee, which formulates future defence strategy.

However, from April next year, this will be controversially subsumed into a single-tier regional committee also covering Norfolk and Suffolk - meaning Essex could have less of a voice at a planning level, increasing fears defences could be left to rot.

Now the latest move by Defra officials has piled on the worry for regional flood planners.

Whitehall officials prioritise funding for individual maintenance projects through a point scoring system, which compares the actual cost of work to the value of the properties and land that would be protected.

The system tends to favour schemes where large numbers of properties are immediately affected over those concentrating on coastal erosion in which the effects on the population are more gradual.

Although Environment Agency-managed projects at Jaywick Bay and Wiseman's Quay in Maldon have won Government funding, others are likely to fail.

Repairs to sea defences to the east of Clacton pier were due to start next year, but with Defra raising the qualifying points threshold two weeks ago work might not now begin until 2008/9 at the earliest.

An inspection by Tendring inspectors has also revealed further worries in a 130-metre stretch of sea wall below York Road at Holland on Sea, where part of the promenade has been closed for safety reasons.

A report to Wednesday's cabinet meeting says “this wall could be at risk of failure during the coming winter storms” and adds repairs are urgent.

A Defra engineer has told the council a rock armourstone scheme could be built for £256,000, but an economic case would be required before 45% grant aid was agreed.

Mr Shearing said yesterday: “Some of the sea defences around Clacton are in a perilous state.

“If the wall collapses, the promenade and the embankment could be brought down.

“The effect on the electricity cables and sewers would be massive - it could cause millions of pounds worth of damage.

“Defra just seem to be moving the goalposts the whole time to avoid giving us the money we need. If this points system is not sorted out, thousands of homes will be at risk of flooding.”

He said further capital expenditure on the council's coastal defence strategy would be suspended.

Steve Hayman, of the Environment Agency, said they were also concerned about what was happening.

He said: “If we don't get the money we need, then it's likely that the deterioration of coast will continue to outstrip the work that we're doing to try and protect it.”

John Whittingdale, MP for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who raised the issue of Essex sea defences in Parliament two months ago, said: “What's happening in Tendring is typical of elsewhere in the county - once a proposal for upgrading sea defences is put forward, the Government ups the hurdles.

“There just isn't the necessary spending at the moment.”

A Defra spokesman said: “The number of possible projects which would meet absolute technical, economic and environmental criteria outstrips Government funding, even with substantial increases provided in all spending reviews.

“We therefore have to prioritise our funding and the priority score arrangements were introduced after wide consultation with stakeholders.

“The changes in the threshold scores are regrettable but it is operating authorities' forecasts that have changed, not the total of funding available from Defra.”

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