Boris Johnson must overhaul the system for deciding where flood-defence funding is spent and launch an emergency response unit to prevent a repeat of the “catastrophic” damage caused by the November floods, leading politicians have said.
Nearly 100 flood warnings were in place across much of England on Sunday, hampering the Christmas getaway, with towns and villages deluged in Kent and East Sussex.
Dan Jarvis, the elected mayor of the Sheffield city region, called on the government to establish a “Cobra for the north” that would be chaired by a cabinet minister and kick into action as soon as floods hit the region.
He said the prime minister had privately agreed to help convene a dedicated emergency response group to react quicker to widespread flooding after he was criticised for his slow response to the devastation.
Jarvis said the emergency unit should be chaired by Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, and bring together local and national government agencies for a detailed postmortem of the floods that affected more than 4,200 homes across South Yorkshire and hundreds more in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
Simon Greaves, the Labour leader of Bassetlaw council, where nearly 200 homes were badly damaged, said: “It would be a scandal if the government response to this crisis is simply devoted to a mopping-up exercise and a grant here and a grant there when actually there are people’s homes that need to be saved from flooding in the future.
“There will be a need for multimillion-pound investment for flood defences without any doubt if we’re going to avoid a catastrophe of the same scale.”
The Environment Agency put 88 flood warnings in place stretching from Middlesbrough down to the south coast on Sunday. There are a further 227 flooding alerts in place, meaning there is a risk of flash flooding and standing water.
About 90 properties have been flooded: about 60 in the south-east and about 30 in Devon and Cornwall, the agency said.
In interviews with the Guardian nearly two months on from the floods, political leaders and officials in many of the worst-affected areas said they were dismayed at the government’s slow response to the crisis and that there had been no high-level discussion about how it could be prevented in future.
Council officials are calculating the cost of the damage but the final bill is expected to run into millions of pounds, with vital infrastructure including roads, bridges and power plants affected when a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours in large parts of northern England.
Jarvis suggested there were problems with Flood Re, the government-backed scheme set up in the aftermath of 2015’s Storm Desmond to provide insurance for domestic properties deemed at significant risk of flooding. “I don’t think this scheme has worked,” he said, suggesting that central government had a “moral duty” to help those unable to get insurance.
Jarvis also said he wanted the Environment Agency to carry out a review of what happened in the Don valley, to work out “whether upgrades to flood defences in Sheffield had a knock-on effect downstream. People have suggested that was the case but no one knows for certain.”
He added: “What I want to know is where do we need to strengthen these defences? Otherwise it will happen again. It will require significant investment, but it is a vital piece of work.”
The agency has said an average of £1bn a year will need to be invested in flood defences as well as a wider programme making all infrastructure flood resilient by 2050.
Greaves called for an overhaul of the system for allocating taxpayers’ money to flood defence schemes, which experts have said favour wealthier areas at the expense of the less well-off.
To secure funding, a flood prevention scheme has to demonstrate that it delivers more in benefits than it costs to implement and maintain. It does this by calculating the economic losses that would be avoided by protecting property and infrastructure – tilting the system in favour of more expensive property and wealthier areas.
Greaves said the system was “rigged against” places such as Worksop in Nottinghamshire, whose entire high street and surrounding homes were deluged when the River Ryton burst its banks last month. He added: “If the status quo is allowed to remain and no intervention is made this will happen again. This crisis cannot be forgotten.”
Sir Stephen Houghton, the Labour leader of Barnsley council, said ministers needed to draw up an action plan that would provide long-term support to flood-threatened regions before the next deluge.
He said there needed to be a review of whether agricultural practices upstream, such as the burning of heather moorland and removal of peat, were causing rainwater to rush downstream and rivers to burst their banks in residential areas.
Nearly 200 properties were affected by flooding in Barnsley last month, 164 of which were residential. It was the third time in 12 years that flood water has swept through the borough.
He said: “We’ve had three serious floods in the last 12 years – it’s not a one-off. It’s going to happen again.”
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Recent flooding in Yorkshire had terrible consequences for people and businesses. This is why we are investing record amounts to help protect communities across the nation from the threat of flooding, using both natural flood management techniques and traditional defences.
“We spend money where it is needed most – with similar funding heading to high-risk areas across both the north and south of England.”