Friday, 10 December 2010

Floods - will Devon's intransigence cause more problems for Cornwall

After the floods that hit Cornwall, one of the questions that a few people are asking is whether budget cuts will make the situation worse next time?

In short - it is highly likely that they will. Our regional flood defence levy has been kept lower than anywhere else in the country thanks to the votes of councillors from Devon.

The full answer comes in three parts:

First, Cornwall Council's own emergency budget. Our Conservative led cabinet have certainly considered the idea of cutting back on street sweeping and road maintenance*. An accumulation of leaves and road debris is a major cause of blocked drains and gulleys which can exacerbate flooding. Thankfully, the Cabinet decided that they are not going to cut the budget for this work at the moment. But my colleagues and I will be on the look out to make sure that in-year changes which are not subject to a vote of the whole council don't started attacking this spending.

The second budget is held by the South West Regional Flood Defence Committee - a panel made up of representatives from Cornwall Council, Plymouth City Council, Torbay Council and Devon County Council. This committee has the power to levy money to spend on local flood schemes as well as to recommend other to the Government.

As I posted earlier this year:

Council tax payers in Devon and Cornwall currently pay about 80p per household per year for flood works. This is below the average nationwide (which is about £1.74 per household) and massively below the highest which is more than £3.20. Of course you get what you pay for and the low level of the local levy means that few schemes can be afforded. The options in front of the committee yesterday were for levy rises of 2.5% (about the rate of inflation), 50% and 100%. The latter two would mean that we would build towards having a local levy close to the national average.

All the Cornish representatives agreed that the levy should increase significantly so that more local works could be undertaken. But we were opposed (and outvoted) by the representatives from the Devon authorities who decreed that the levy should stay as small as possible. I asked Cabinet member Julian German about this at the recent full council meeting and was told:

This Council originally sought a 50% increase in the flood levy for 2010/11 due to the fact that the South West flood levy is amongst the lowest in the country but due to the financial constraints highlighted by other local authorities, the final figure was reduced to £160k.

Given the chaos caused by floods recently, I would have hoped that the Devon authorities would have seen the sense in increasing this amount next year. But Cornwall Council is anticipating that there will be no change at all with just £160,000 budget for the next financial year.

Third, there is the money held by central government and either spent centrally or given in a grant to local authorities. Among the first round of budget cuts handed down to Cornwall in the summer was a batch of £4 million grant cuts. Cornwall Council decided in principle that, rather than swap money around to make up for cuts, they would seek to pass the cuts directly on to its budget. As I noted at the time:

When asked about the cuts, Council Leader Alec Robertson said that he would be looking to make savings in the 'extra' services that the Council provides. I have therefore asked a question for next Tuesday's council meeting to ask what he means by 'extra' services and whether these include those services which have just had their ring-fencing taken away.

These include playbuilder and play pathfinder schemes, Animal Health and Welfare Enforcement and Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management. Are these services and projects for the chop and, if not, which are?

And the answer?

"The announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government last Thursday identified £3.8m worth of specific services which would no longer be funded from Area Based Grants and, logically, it was these, now unfunded, activities which must first be considered for withdrawal. That said, the flexibility offered by the removal of ring fencing was welcomed and, consequently, all services were under review. It was too early to confirm any specific cuts but cuts there would have to be and soon." (Alex Robertson, Full Council 15 June 2010)

I've checked with officers and it turns out that, thankfully, the government cuts to our flood defence budget were not passed into Cornwall's own budget programme. It's good that flood prevention work was not cut in the summer, but there is no guarantee that it will not suffer in the future as it is no longer ring-fenced.

Of course, flood works take time. In addition, there is no guarantee that flood works will prevent all damage to property. But it is certainly the case that more flood prevention schemes will lessen the chance that significant harm, such as that which occurred yesterday, will happen again next time.

*Cabinet considered cutting road maintenance budgets by up to £3 million and street sweeping by 25% according to budget papers.

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