Flood-stricken areas in England call for eased access to relief funds

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Councils in flood-stricken areas have demanded ministers urgently ease their access to emergency recovery funds as more than 100 flood warnings remained in place across England in the wake of Storm Dennis.

Local leaders in Worcestershire, where the River Severn burst its banks and flooded homes, said the system that funds urgent recovery efforts is not working properly and have called on the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, to loosen rules to allow more money to flow to councils.

The county council leader in Derbyshire, where floods are expected to worsen in the coming 24 hours, said the government is refusing to pay anything towards the £20m costs caused by flooding in November.

“We are not very happy,” said Barry Lewis. “You can’t give local authorities the clear message you are going to support them and then turn your back on them.”

Last week, the government made some emergency funds available under its Bellwin scheme to councils in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, Worcestershire and Herefordshire where the latest floods hit hardest.

But the cash is only available once a council spends a certain amount of its own money. Because councils often work together on emergency recovery efforts some do not meet the threshold. About 1,400 homes have been flooded as a result of Storm Dennis.

“Neither the flooding nor our response is bound by artificial boundaries,” the leaders of seven Worcestershire councils have told Jenrick. “Our response was across Worcestershire and our residents want and need equality of treatment.”

As householders, businesses and council workers consider the scale of damage caused by the latest heavy rains, which saw 15 rivers reach their highest level on record, Downing Street defended Boris Johnson’s absence from flooded areas and rejected the suggestion he had visited flooded areas during December’s election simply to win votes.

“The PM was receiving regular updates and working with ministers across government to ensure that people received the help that they need,” a No 10 spokesperson said.

The environment minister, George Eustice, told parliament £2.6bn was being invested in flood defences to protect homes. “Climate change is making the UK warmer and wetter with more frequent extreme weather events,” he said.

£500 hardship grants will be available for flood-hit households, 100% council tax and business rates relief for at least three months and £2,500 business recovery grants for affected firms. Householders and businesses will also be able to apply for up to £5,000 to help make them more resilient to future flooding.

But the leader of Herefordshire county council, where the River Wye rose to its highest level in 200 years, warned that a lack of funds meant roads badly damaged by the flooding are likely to remain unfixed.

“We don’t have the money to pay for it,” said David Hitchiner. “They are going to have to be left. Eighty per cent of our spending goes on statutory functions. People in central government need to get their heads on and work this out.”

In Shropshire, where temporary flood barriers in the Ironbridge gorge were placed under severe threat, Shaun Davies, leader of Telford and Wrekin council, said: “It is time the government came forward with a permanent solution looking at the gorge in its entirety. We will absolutely be lobbying the government for that investment.”

In parliament on Monday, Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury, where two danger to life flood warnings were in place on Monday and roads, schools and colleges were closed, told Jenrick: “We need more money for our local councils.”

There were also fresh questions on Monday about building on flood plains when a council leader in Durham described a plan by her own council to build a new £50m headquarters on land that flooded last week besides the river Wear as “ludicrous”.

“It is madness to want to build anything there,” said Elizabeth Scott, a councillor and chairwoman of the city of Durham parish council, which has opposed the project. “The council will argue it is putting in flood defences, but at what cost to the public purse? The frequency of these incidents is increasing and who knows what the future holds.”

The council insists the building will be erected on a raised plateau and the ground floor will be several metres above the level of flooding during storms Ciara and Dennis. The building incorporates underground tanks, whereby in the event of a major flood they will fill with water and slowly release it back into the river as the flood levels recede.

In Herefordshire, Hitchiner, said 325 homes were being planned for construction on flood plains, which he added was wrong but a result of government pressure to meet housing targets.