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Over a hundred of London’s private flood defences are rated ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ by the Environment Agency

Almost a third of Britain’s high-consequence flood defences are privately owned meaning they cannot be forced to improve them

Written by
Rhys Thomas

In data recently obtained under the freedom of information act, Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, has found that more than a thousand privately owned flood defences in vulnerable parts of England were in a poor condition last year

Among the extensive data sets is information on how the Environment Agency (EA) rated privately maintained flood defences across the capital for its 2019/2020 audit. It does this on a scale of one to five, with one being ‘very good’ and five being ‘very poor’. All the data refers to what the EA describes as ‘high consequence’ locations. This means the flood defences are protecting areas ‘where the consequence on people and property’ is high, should a defence fail. So, like, there’s proper real-life impact stuff to worry about for people if there’s a bad storm and/or the long-term effects of rising sea levels.

Unearthed kindly shared the London bits of its data with Time Out, so we can reveal that more than a hundred of London’s privately owned flood defences were rated as either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ by the EA during its 2019/2020 report. With roughly 10 percent of the entire country’s poorly rated flood defences in London, that’s real cause for concern. 

Thanks to the information provided, we have been able to look at just where these less-than-adequate defences are located in the city. Tower Hamlets has the most badly rated defences, with 16 of them being ranked ‘poor’ and another ‘very poor’. Second-worst-off was Greenwich, with nine ‘poor’ defences.

While we don’t know exactly which flood defences are affected, the fact that Tower Hamlets contains Canary Wharf suggests that the outlook is concerning for the financial area on the Isle of Dogs. Other boroughs with several less-than-good defences include Newham, Barking & Dagenham, and Barnet, all of which have seven or more ‘poor’ defences in total. The latter two, along with Haringey and Hillingdon, each have three ‘very poor’ flood defences, the highest total of ‘very poor’ defences in any London borough. In total, 26 areas of London made the list. 

Why are we banging on about the ‘private’ aspect of these defences, you might be wondering. Well, it’s because this means the owner can’t be forced to do repairs. The Guardian spoke with James Mead, a flood and water manager at Sheffield City Council, in their article on the Unearthed report. He said that when it comes to contacting private owners, ‘All we can do is ask nicely’. 

The Environmental Agency can perform emergency repairs on these private flood defences where required, but the cost of repairing these pieces of infrastructure can easily hit six figures. While the government has announced funds of £5.2 billion over the next six years to help tackle flooding and coastal erosion across the UK, Unearthed points out that private companies who own flood defences will not be eligible for any of that money. So we will have to rely on them to repair their defences out of their own pockets. 

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