Communities to have say on sea defences, Suffolk meeting told

POWER will be given to coastal communities to decide how best to protect their land from the sea, the chairman of the Environment Agency (EA) has pledged.

But Lord Chris Smith warned that people would need to need to come up with money as well as ideas as Government budgets for flood defence projects are squeezed.

The former cabinet minister was the guest speaker at the annual general meeting of the Suffolk Coast Against Retreat (SCAR) group at the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh on Saturday.

He told landowners, local councillors and representatives of coastal groups that the EA was committed to cutting bureaucracy and enabling defence schemes – and he offered a personal pledge to investigate failings.

'The 'we know best' approach doesn't wash these days,' he said. 'There will be times when we don't get it right, and if you experience that, then come to me.'

Lord Smith said that, as well as tightened budgets for flood defences and management, there was uncertainly over the details of a new Government formula for calculating project grants.

But he said there was still a national pot of �2.1bn for flood risk management and defences over the next four years and that the EA would 'sit down with communities' and look at schemes on a case-by-case basis.

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'I would like for us to be able to say: 'We have this amount of money we can put in the pot – if that's the case, can you raise this much?'

'I'd like there to be real clarity and to give real power to communities to make those decisions,' he said.

The peer took a number of questions from the floor, on issues such as possible tax breaks for contributions to defence schemes and future insurance cover for flood-risk homes.

He assured the meeting he was lobbying ministers to recognise the value of agricultural land that may be at risk of being lost to the sea.

After the meeting, Lord Smith said: 'I was very conscious when I took up my position as chairman of the Environment Agency that the people of Suffolk feel very strongly about their history, their landscape and their livelihoods and I am determined – even more so after seeing the passion coming from this room – to come up with as much as we can to help them.

'We are committed to protecting as many properties and as much land as effectively and efficiently as we can.

'We need to identify the communities most at need, look at all the available resources and find imaginative solutions to funding.'

The meeting was chaired by Lord Deben, patron of SCAR, who praised Lord Smith's efforts to change the EA into a 'forward-thinking and flexible' organisation that worked alongside communities.