Storm damage leaves councils facing big cuts to pay for repairs

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent
Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

The worst storms in years have left some councils facing “disastrous” cuts to public services to pay for widespread damage to roads and bridges that will cost tens of millions of pounds to fix, the Guardian has learned.

While the full scale of the destruction caused by storms Ciara and Dennis is not yet known, council leaders have expressed alarm about the spiralling repair bill and the implications for their already-stretched budgets.

More than 3,060 homes and businesses have been been flooded this month, according to data provided by five of the worst-hit local authorities, and the tally is expected to rise over the weekend.

In the flood-stricken Welsh valleys, Rhondda Cynon Taf council said the cost of fixing damage to bridges had soared to £40m and was expected to rise further. The bill has also reached tens of millions of pounds in neighbouring Monmouthshire.

Costs graphic

The Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, said Rhondda Cynon Taf council would be forced to slash its already-straitened budget, potentially making cuts to public services such as libraries and swimming pools, unless the UK government stepped in.

“If we’re just forced to borrow we could be paying for this for decades and by then there will be another serious flood,” he said. “My anxiety is it could wipe Rhondda Cynon Taf’s budget out.”

Councils and emergency services have been working around the clock to battle unprecedented flooding across large parts of England and Wales after the second-wettest February in 254 years of records.

Since 2010, local authorities in England have faced a near-£16bn reduction in core funding from central government, losing 60p in every pound. Interviews with council leaders, MPs and officials in six of the worst-affected areas in Wales and England revealed that many are depleting their reserves to cope with the flooding crisis, with at least one authority using money set aside for child safeguarding or adult social care.

In Herefordshire, where 407 properties have been damaged and river levels are expected to rise again, council leaders said they expected the immediate repairs to cost at least £10m – equivalent to its entire annual budget for fixing roads – but the longer-term damage could reach tens of millions of pounds.

John Harrington, the county council’s infrastructure lead, said it was having to use £1m of its reserves on the clean-up operation – most of which it hoped to recoup from the government – but the biggest cost would be repairing roads and bridges.

Harrington, an independent councillor, said: “We’ve had £90m a year taken out of our budget after inflation – that’s about a third of our budget since 2010. We are getting decimated.

“The fabric of our society locally is falling apart: there is potholes, there are drains that are not cleared, let alone the essential services that we’re trying to do like social care.”

He said the government was refusing to pay anything towards the recovery costs from the storms in November, when more than 150 homes and businesses flooded. The county council leader in Derbyshire said this week it had also not received any government support for the £20m costs of the pre-Christmas floods.

The government said it had made up to £5,000 available for each affected home and business in eligible regions, and activated its Bellwin scheme, which allows councils to apply to be reimbursed for clean-up costs above a threshold.

However, there has been no detail on whether councils will receive financial support for the multimillion-pound repairs needed over the longer term.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Our priority is to deal quickly and urgently with the needs of all of those affected by storms Ciara and Dennis to ensure they have the support they need to get back on their feet.

“We’ve announced thousands of pounds of support including grants, council tax relief and business rates relief to ensure people get the help they need, and stand ready to discuss further requests for support with local areas.”

Flooding costs map

In Shropshire, at least 200 homes are known to have been damaged and dozens of properties were evacuated this week in Ironbridge, when a flood barrier buckled under the strain of more than 500 tonnes of water a second coursing down the Severn.

The Conservative councillor David Minnery, Shropshire council’s lead on finance, said the full picture of the damage was yet to emerge but he expected repairs to roads and bridges to cost between £7m and £10m and to take as long as a year to complete. The council was having to plunder up to £1m from its reserves to pay for the immediate recovery, he said.

“It’s a national scandal, and I say that as a Conservative councillor, the way that successive governments over the years have shortchanged local authorities, particularly with social care,” he said.

Asked about having to pay millions of pounds for flood repairs, he said: “In one word, it’s disastrous. We are hand to mouth as it is. Next year we think we’re OK and the year after [but] at the moment we’re looking at a £12m-£15m gap so you can just add to that the [£7m-£10m] figure we’ve been talking about in terms of the damage.

“There’s nowhere for it to come from, other than some capital reserves, and we’ll have to raid those.”

Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, said parts of her constituency in the Calder valley were facing “an almost existential crisis” due to repeated flooding. More than 1,200 homes and businesses had been badly affected by Storm Ciara in the Calder valley, she said, with Calderdale council’s bill expected to reach £5m.

She said the government must urgently step in to help the councils in need. “It’s something we are really worried about. We received funding very early on after [the] 2015 [floods] for highways infrastructure damage which totalled over £25m. We have had no such commitments this time.”

Telford & Wrekin council, which also covers Ironbridge, was having to pay for its floods response from its contingency and reserves budget, said the council leader, Shaun Davies – the same money that would usually go towards adult social care and child safeguarding.

Davies said he expected the council to be “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of pounds out of pocket without government help.