Words by Stephen Arkley, Staff Writer

 Greenpeace’s investigative arm ‘Unearthed’ has revealed that a third of England’s most vital flood defences were privately owned, with 1,000 of these either in a ‘poor’ state or at risk of “complete performance failure”. This came after it was reported that flooding had killed 200 people within Western Europe this summer. 

England’s Environmental agency has called for new flood defence systems across England and has said more needs to be done in “attracting private sector finance into investment in the natural environment”. Although the Environment Agency can carry out repairs on these defences in emergency circumstances, the government cannot force private owners to make these upgrades themselves. No public record is currently kept of which companies own or maintain these flood defences, with even local authorities often unaware. 

The Environment Agency predicted that at least 5.2 million homes and businesses in England will be at risk of flooding and that around 700 properties will be vulnerable to coastal erosion over the next 20 years. 

Unearthed used data from the Environment Agency and overlaid it with data from the Land Registry and other sources for a clearer picture of the country’s private ownership. It revealed that after Storm Ciara in 2020, Kirklees Council, West Yorkshire revealed they did not know who owned the 23 private flood defences in the area that were rated as poor. Even in cases where local authorities are aware of the owners behind these flood defences, they are still unable to compel them to carry out repairs. 

In 2017, Sheffield city centre experienced a sinkhole open in a Decathlon store car park.  The sinkhole was caused by the collapse of an underground pipe owned and managed by the retailer. More than four years later,  data from the Environment Agency showed that the culvert was still classed as being in “very poor” condition, one of 36 inadequate privately owned defences within the city. 

Sheffield City Council Flood Manager James Mead commented that despite warning Decathlon before the sinkhole opened up, they still refused to make repairs and said “all we can really do is ask nicely. We don’t have the power to make somebody actually fix something”. 

Shadow Flooding Minister Olivia Blake said “The government must act to ensure there are clear responsibilities and adequate measures in place so that any flood defences which are privately owned and critically important to the protection of the public are properly inspected and maintained”.

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