Shropshire Council says highways budgets are being put under immense pressure by the additional burden, sparking fears that the county could be vulnerable to even more damage in future episodes of severe weather unless additional funds are freed up.
The authority’s communities overview committee heard at a meeting on Tuesday that budget cuts in recent years and the resulting reduction in maintenance of highways gullies and connecting drainage systems meant “the network was not as resilient as it could have been” when the storms hit towns including Shrewsbury, Ironbridge and Bridgnorth.
The scale of the ensuing damage has cost the council more than £2.74 million – a figure that is still rising as repairs continue – on top of the £520,000 cost of responding to the crisis. Of this, just £60,000 could be reclaimed from the government under the Bellwin scheme.
Steve Smith, assistant director of infrastructure, said: “It’s fair to say over the last few years maintenance has been reduced to reflect the budgetary positions, while still being operative and fit for purpose in normal times.
“What we have found is because of the amount of flood waters that did come through and the extra silt and debris that has been put into those systems, we now have several drainage systems across the county which are blocked or at least have significantly reduced capacity.
“We have undertaken a huge amount of work since then to clean and repair some of those damaged drainage systems, so that they are fit for purpose if we have another event this winter.
“That’s taken a huge amount of additional resource and funds to be able to deliver that, and all of those costs fall outside the Bellwin funding. That has put a real pressure on our budgets.”
Mr Smith said the council was now trialling a new system whereby a group of dedicated in-house staff is assisting highways contractor Kier in carrying out some of the maintenance.
Mr Smith’s report to the committee recommended the council draw up a severe weather plan, to include the creation of a grants distribution team to free up senior officers, and make arrangements for extra officer capacity in the event of a major weather incident.
But Councillor Nigel Hartin said he had concerns the current budget would hinder progress.
He said: “I have worried for a little while that we have reduced our budget in highways too far in the cuts that we have made in recent years, and that’s perhaps something we should look at again.”
Mr Smith said the flooding response earlier this year was a “knee-jerk reaction” to an unprecedented situation. The proposed strategy, he said, would take learning from those events “to make sure we are better prepared next time”, by better allocating existing resources, and would not necessarily require more money.
Councillor David Turner said blocked drains were continuing to cause problems with surface water flooding, especially during the autumn due to fallen leaves and straw from farm machinery during harvest.
He asked: “Will a better regime of highways cleansing be introduced to avoid the problems of debris blocking the drains?”
Councillor Cecilia Motley, chair of the committee, said surface water flooding was a “serious” issue.
She said: “We recognise the fact that the highways department has suffered from severely reduced budgets over the last years.
“I think one of the things we need to look at is how and whether we can actually give more money to highways to deal with particularly prevention work.”
Another of Mr Smith’s recommendations was for the council to help to establish more flood action groups across the county, with support from the National Flood Forum (NFF).
Mr Smith said: “What we are seeing now is a quick rise in the number of flood action groups that I think, with the help and support of the NFF, can become really useful, meaningful assets to communities and a resource to the council to have a better intelligence in flooding, so that we are better prepared to react going forward.”
The committee unanimously agreed the recommendations.