Defra performance in 2014–15 Contents

4Managing threats

30.Protection of the nation from natural threats, including animal and plant diseases, and floods and droughts is central to Defra’s remit. A complex cost-benefit calculation must be made in each policy area on how upfront investment can provide value for money by minimising the longer-term costs, such as those arising from a significant flood event or animal disease outbreak.


31.About 1 in 6 properties (more than 5.5 million) in England and Wales are at risk from flooding from one or more water sources (rivers, seas and surface water). The Committee on Climate Change has predicted increasingly intense flood events.38 The floods of 2007 cost the economy up to £4 billion.39 After the winter floods in 2013–14, which saw 7,000 properties flooded, Defra announced £270 million of additional funding and a wide range of flood recovery schemes for individuals and businesses affected by the winter floods. This additional money brought funding to a new peak in 2014–15. However, according to the NAO, total funding over the last Parliament would have actually decreased by 3% in cash terms, or 10% in real terms without this emergency allocation.40

32.Capital funding for flood defences is assured for the coming six years under a £2.3 billion programme for 2015–21. This will fund more than 1,400 schemes to improve flood and coastal erosion defences. Defra estimates it will reduce risk of flooding for 300,000 households,41 avoid an estimated £30 billion in economic damage costs and drive down overall flood risk by 5%.42 Defra calculates that each pound invested in tackling the risk of flooding results in an additional £4–£9 of benefits to the local economy.43

33.However, Defra’s funding plan relies on the Government being able to secure £600 million from external contributions. The Permanent Secretary told us that £250 million has been raised from such sources, of which £61 million is from the private sector.44 She said that it would be very difficult to ring-fence funding for maintenance as that was “not the way” HM Treasury worked.45 The previous Committee expressed concern about uncertainty around resource funding for asset maintenance and for activities such as dredging of rivers to minimise the risk of flooding in areas such as Somerset.46 The Chancellor’s Spending Review announcement committed to protecting funding for maintenance but provides no further details.47

34.Defra’s six-year commitment to capital funding for flood defence work brings welcome certainty at a time of budget constraints. The large number of properties at significant, and in some cases increasing, risk of flooding means that prioritising spend on flood defences is essential if the UK is to minimise potentially huge costs of future flood events. Considerable economic gains may be made for local communities by unlocking for development land that would otherwise be unusable owing to flood risk.

35.However, the Department has not obtained a firm commitment from the private sector that it will provide the level of investment necessary if funding targets are to be met. We welcome Spending Review assurances that funding to maintain flood assets it to be protected since investing in assets without assurance that they will be kept in adequate condition to meet rising challenges of flooding is not the most cost-effective use of money and reducing investment in activities such as dredging is a false economy.

36.We are concerned that Defra’s requirement to find reductions of 15% in resource budgets over the next four years may affect vital flood protection work. We recommend that Defra set out within the next three months the implications of the Spending Review settlement on resource budgets for maintaining flood capital assets and for undertaking routine maintenance work such as the dredging of rivers.

Animal and plant diseases

37.Defra is responsible for policy on animal and plant diseases, including those affecting agriculture. Diseases can be costly—for example, the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak cost between £6 and £9 billion, while compensating for bovine TB (bTB) has cost £500 million over 10 years. Two thirds of known human diseases are zoonoses (transmissible between animals and humans). For example, campylobacter and salmonella transmitted from poultry or pigs to humans are major public health concerns. Plant and tree diseases can have a significant impact on economies and on ecosystems. The UK’s £2 billion forestry industry, for example, employs some 40,000 people.48 But, as the Lords Spokesman for Defra, Lord Gardiner of Kimble said, globalisation in trade and travel and the greater volume and diversity of tree and plant imports have increased threats. He told us that in response to these threats Defra had developed a Tree Health Management Plan which included research into ash-dieback disease, including the potential for using genetically diverse varieties with resistance to the disease.49

38.The spread of bTB among cattle herds is a substantial threat to the farming economy. In April 2014, Defra published a strategy to achieve bTB-free status by 2038 in England.50 This was underpinned by research into the appropriateness and effectiveness of the use of approaches such as vaccination of cattle and/or of wildlife (including badgers) that act as a reservoir for the disease.51 Enhanced cattle testing and movement controls, and culling of badgers are other elements of the bTB strategy. In September, pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire continued for a third year with culling also taking place in Dorset, the first area in the roll-out phase. The Secretary of State told us that culling badgers was not a “silver bullet,” that she needed to “wait for the evidence to come out and analyse it on a proper basis”, and that she was “committed to following that evidence and what will deliver the best results”.52

39.The devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland take approaches towards managing bTB in the badger population that differ from England’s and from each other’s approaches. Northern Ireland uses a ‘test and vaccinate or remove’ (TVR) approach and data on its effectiveness are due later this year.53 In Wales, badgers are being trapped and vaccinated in a five year programme as part of the nation’s overall bTB eradication strategy.54

40.Failure to manage threats from animal and plant diseases causes significant costs to farming and rural communities. Sound science is essential to provide a robust evidence base for decisions on policies to tackle diseases.

41.We welcome Defra’s investment in science and research to identify effective ways to minimise threats from animal and plant diseases, and we recommend that the Department ensure that the costs and benefits of supporting such research are explicitly taken into account in future funding decisions.

42.Opinions differ strongly over how best to manage threats from diseases such as bovine tuberculosis (bTB). Defra must establish a thorough evidence base for underpinning policy formulation and communicate it in a fully transparent manner to set out clearly the reasons for the policy decisions it takes. Defra must publish full data on bTB incidence in areas where badgers have been culled.

43.Tackling diseases such as bTB require a holistic approach and we recommend that the Government rolls out at the earliest opportunity all aspects of its strategy which are underpinned by a strong evidence base. We further recommend that Defra takes into account approaches by devolved administrations and the evidence as to the effectiveness or otherwise of the different nations’ approaches to managing bTB.

39 Environment Agency, The costs of the summer 2007 floods in England, Project Summary, January 2010, p V. Total “out of pocket” costs were £4 billion, with some £2.5 billion borne by households (of which 75% was recovered through insurance claims) and some £1 billion borne by businesses (of which some 90% was recovered through insurance claims) 

41 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Annual Report and Accounts 2014-15, HC 30, p12

42 “£2.3 billion to be spent on new flood defences” Defra press release, 2 December 2014

44 Ev w01

45 Q59

46 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Work of the Committee: 2010–15, HC 942

47 Defra’s Settlement at the Spending Review, Press Release, 25 November 2015

48 Q135

49 Q132

52 Q146

53 Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Northern Ireland, Test and Vaccinate or Remove (TVR) wildlife intervention research webpages (accessed 1 December 2015)

54 Welsh government bovine TB webpages (accessed 1 December 2015)

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Prepared 14 December 2015