The Government must not allow budget cuts to affect vital flood protection work, a committee of MPs has warned.
The Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee has asked Defra to produce a plan showing how it will deliver vital services in the face of further cuts, which will reduce administration budgets by more than a quarter and overall resource budgets by 15 per cent.
It comes after flooding devastated parts of North West England and the Scottish Borders last week.
As the major clean-up continued, a row broke out over the amount of money being spent on flooding, with Labour accusing the Conservatives of slashing Defra’s 2015/16 budget by £116m.
Chairman of the committee, Neil Parish, said while savings would have to be made, Defra must prioritise front-line work such as flood protection.
“We have asked the Secretary of State for a clear strategy outlining the impact of Spending Review cuts on vital services," he said.
“We welcome Defra’s commitment to a six-year capital flood defence programme and its pledge to protect maintenance funding for activities such as river dredging.
“This is prudent investment since flood damage may cost more to repair than to prevent. But the increasing risk of more extreme flood events will stretch these budgets thinly.”
Defra’s funding plan relies on the Government being able to secure £600m from external contributions – of which only £250m has so far been secured, with only £61 million from the private sector.
Mr Parish added: “We are pleased the Government is committed to a £2.3 billion programme for flood defences over this Parliament. But this relies heavily on investment from the private sector, which has not yet been guaranteed.”
CLA president Ross Murray agreed flood protection remained crucial.
"The EFRA committee has raised a concern that investment from the private sector has not been guaranteed," he said.
"The CLA will continue to press for tax relief for spending on flood protection measures to be extended to private landowners, which will encourage more private investment. Landowners can be part of the mitigation against floods, and we are up for the challenge."
The EFRA report was heavily critical of Defra Ministers and officials for a continued lack of clarity over how cuts to its budget will be achieved and the impact they will have.
The November Spending Review will see a further 15 per cent removed from Defra’s budget over the next four years.
While this represents an improvement on the 25 to 40 per cent cuts initially proposed, it comes on the back of Defra’s budget having been reduced from over £3 billion in 2010-11 to £2.25 billion in 2015–16.
The EFRA inquiry did gain limited insight into where the axe will fall in evidence from Defra Secretary Liz Truss and new Permanent Secretary Clare Moriarty, as well as the Spending Review announcement. This included:
The MPs acknowledged Defra’s evidence came before the spending settlement was announced and therefore some caution was necessary.
But the report concluded the information provided had not answered how the savings would be made or which policy areas would be affected.
For the third year in a row successive Defra Secretaries and officials had failed to provide this clarity, the report said.
It said: "We and our predecessor Committees have struggled to clarify with successive Secretaries of State and senior Defra officials their strategy for determining which policies and priorities will be altered by repeated spending reductions.
"We seek such a statement in response to this report now that the 2015 Spending Review has been announced.
"We recommend that Defra publishes urgently its strategic approach for achieving the necessary reductions in its budgets for the next Spending Review period.
"Detailed plans for implementing this, including how administrative savings are to be made, must then be provided at the earliest possible date."
The report also: