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Conservative Councillor blames Labour for lack of flood assistance measures


Flooding on Caton Road, Lancaster UK. 19 July 2017
Flooding on Caton Road, Lancaster UK. 19 July 2017
Chris Satori


In the run up to the Skerton by-election, Conservative County and City Councillor Charlie Edwards has called Lancaster's Labour-run City Council's efforts to assist businesses and residents in the latest round of flash floods 'a complete failure'.  

The City Council has responded that it has been is working every possible avenue open to it (see below) but that the chief responsibility lies with the Conservative County Council, because they're the lead flood authority, and ultimately with the government, who will only fund a fraction of the costs of high priority schemes. 

Councillor Edwards launched a vehement assault on the City Council this week, saying: "The Government allocated funding for areas hit by Storm Desmond, and Lancaster City Council did not put a single bid in for that money.

"Cat Smith said during her election campaign that the Government has funding but isn't spending it. There is a process for this kind of funding, it requires local government making formal applications to Government. Why was it so easy for Cumbria and so hard for Lancaster?"

"The Labour run City Council passed a motion about the floods, we had a task group which turned into a talking shop, and then when it came to the next emergency situation, the Council were still unavailable for contact unless you wanted to buy a sandbag."

Councillor Edwards, who represents Morecambe South on Lancashire County Council and Bare Ward on Lancaster City Council, says he has repeatedly called for action, rather than words, from the City Council since the floods.

"In Torrisholme, residents have complained to me that they have notified the Council of flood issues for a number of years, and there has been a complete lack of action on the part of local authorities to stop this in the long run."

"I am calling on Cat Smith to act on her warm words and instruct her [sic] City Councillors to make this a priority."

City Council's response

To help clarify the situation, Lancaster City Council has issued the following explanation of the flood measures underway (the word in quotes are theirs):

"Lancashire County Council plays the primary role as it is the lead flood authority and as the highway authority they’re also responsible for highway gullies etc. United Utilities also has some responsibilities in relation to sewers.

"The flood alleviation scheme in the city centre (Mill Race) also involves the City Council as well as the Environment Agency, United Utilities and Lancashire County Council, but it is the County Council which takes the lead on investigating flood mitigation measures."

In March 2017 the City Council allocated a PLR grant of £104,000 be paid in relation to works to protect The Mill Race, also to be funded from Government grant.

The City Council also explained some of the other work it had undertaken:

Property Level Resilience Grants

"As far as the City Council is aware the only Government funding which was available following Storms Desmond/Eva was for direct support to affected businesses in the immediate aftermath of the storms.  These were called Property Level Resilience (PLR) funds and not made available for local authorities to spend on ‘strategic’ schemes funded via by the Environment Agency (EA)."

Following Storm Desmond Flood Resilience Grants of up to £5000 were made available to property owners whose houses or businesses were affected. They had to apply directly to the EA for these grants and an advisory office was set up locally to assist people to do this. The costs of fitting flood resilience measures - raising wiring, stock and equipment, sealing basements, walls and flooring etc, is steep and can vary greatly between properties. Property owners facing a recurrent threat of flooding are not likely to be appeased by a £5k handout on a 'house by house' basis, but would prefer an effective water management strategy to be put into effect.

In March 2017 the City Council allocated a further PLR grant of £96,240 be paid in relation to works to protect Lune Square, to be funded from Government grant and 'intended to provide future protection for 109 households from flooding events, reducing the risk of any need for rehousing.'

River Lune Flood Management Scheme

Lancaster City Council also said:

"The City Council’s main involvement is in the flood defence scheme that has been proposed for the River Lune (you can find out about that here

Cllr Janice Hanson, Cabinet Member with responsibility for regeneration and planning, added:  "In February this year, Lancaster City Council agreed to lead on a £9.4M project, in partnership with the EA to strengthen riverside flood defences on Caton Road and help deliver protection for this important commercial area.

"While potential sources, including £3.1million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), have been identified, there is currently a significant funding shortfall of £1.8million.

"The city council will continue to work with the EA and a number of other partners to find additional sources of funding to allow it to go ahead."

The Environment Agency's funding priorities

The Environment Agency (EA) is a Government appointed body responsible for using Government allocated funds for the delivery of flood protection schemes to priority areas.  The £9.4m riverside scheme is eligible for EA’s directly administered Grant in Aid funding and the City Cuncil has applied for the maximum grant available of £2.5m under this funding scheme.

Strengthening the riverside flood defences on Caton Road is to predominantly benefit and protect a commercial area. The EA’s grant, allocated through a complex formula, ranks commercial schemes as a lower priority than schemes designed to protect residential areas.  Even though the EA ranks the Lancaster scheme as among its highest priority schemes for Lancashire, its funding formula will not allow it to wholly fund the project, and significant partnership funding is therefore required.

Can the Caton Road area be flood protected?

However it's a huge gamble for the City Council - and the city. The scheme would cost it £millions before it was completed. But as their reports explain, there is no guarantee that an effective scheme can actually be delivered - one that could completely safeguard this area from the increasing volumes of water flooding into it after particularly intense rainfall. The Heysham Gateway development has markedly increased the volume of runoff water. Local development plans for greenfield areas to be offered for new housing estates, south of the link road and around M6 Jn 34, will increase the runoff volume further, potentially making current schemes obsolete. 

There's also no realistic proposition of such a major scheme being completed in the short term. Which means this area will inevitably remain at risk from flooding for some time yet, whatever happens.

On the other hand, divestment from Luneside industrial estates could result in businesses and their jobs moving away, potentially to outside Lancaster district. So the City Council has also submitted an outline bid for £3.1million funding from the ERDF and are trying to tie together a secure financial package before Brexit removes that option. 

So who's responsible? 

It's not surprising that people get frustrated as it does seem that nobody is able to take overall responsibility for local flood management strategies and their funding. Buildings are the responsibility of one local authority, roads and highway gullies the responsibility of another, and both are already struggling with massive budget cuts. Sewers and water management are the responsibility of a defensive private utility. Environmental changes are overtaking them all but the Environment Agency is only authorised to allocate piecemeal and partial funding event to priority schemes. EU regional funding will not survive Brexit and the current government isn't minded to tax and spend. 

On top this there is future planning. Government housing policy has forced the City Council to allocate local greenfield sites for the development of thousands of new homes. This will increase the rain runoff into the Lune upstream of the City Centre, with a potentially significant effect on water levels. 

As things stand, those who witnessed water jetting out of the highway drains to cause floods will understand why the County Council and United Utilities have the biggest parts to play. But Conservative government austerity policies have left the County Council with a massive funding deficit throughout its services and United Utilities is now blaming 'wet wipes flushed down the toilets' for the problems.

Clearly local Labour and Conservative councillors on the City and the County Council are both very keen on obtaining effective flood management measures. Optimistic studies have also been taking place at Lancaster University into Natural Flood Management. But with no commitment coming from government for realistic funding for the multiple agencies and privately-owned utilities involved to implement a comprehensive local plan, or even to provide relocation assistance for badly-affected businesses and residents, their hands are still tied.

Coherent government strategy needed

Both Councils need to unite in demanding a coherent government funding strategy for the area's flood management infrastructure. So, as well as asking Lancaster's Cat Smith, perhaps Cllr Edwards could ask his own MP, Morecambe's Conservative David Morris, to instruct his government to make flood management funding a priority too. This would enable his County Councillors (including Cllr Edwards) and his Environment Agency to make it their priority to partner in local schemes as they should.   Otherwise we're sunk.