Spending on maintenance of some flood defence structures in the North East is being scaled down or stopped entirely because of cuts in funding.
Government grant aid to the Environment Agency to maintain and repair defence and flood risk management structures, such as walls, embankments, pumping stations and sluices, has been reduced by 25%.
The agency maintains more than 6,000 of what it calls flood risk assets, which protect 29,000 properties, businesses and crucial infrastructure in the region.
But Tony Andryszewski, agency North East regional programme manager, said: “Our allocated revenue budget over the past few years has steadily reduced, reflecting the current harsh financial environment.
“The reduction in maintenance funding is becoming an increasing issue.
“Good asset management is crucial to protecting people, property, business and critical infrastructure from the devasating effects of flooding and coastal erosion.
“We would like to do more than we are doing but we need the money to do it.
“Decisions are having to be taken on what structures should have priority for repairs. This will have a greater impact in rural areas.
“These decisions are not taken lightly. We have to look at what is being protected.
“As we prioritise where we spend funding we are increasingly reducing maintenance in some low-risk locatons and, in some cases, we are stopping maintenance completely while offering advice to landowners and those affected on doing the work themselves,” said Mr Andryszewski.
“We have managed to maintain the condition of our assets to acceptable standards, but constant reductions on the budget may mean that the risk of failure increases as our assets deteriorate.”
He said that the tidal surge in December underlined the importance of maintaining, and investing in, coastal and estuary defences.
He said: “Had we not invested in coastal assets and mainatained them over many decades then the recent incident would have been catastrophic to coastal communities and industry along the Northumbria coastline and estuaries.”
If the December surge had happehad in the 1950s, before today’s defences and flood warning system, thousands of properties would have been hit, with possible fatalities, said Mr Andryszewski.
Meanwhile, the agency’s Northumbria regional flood and coastal committee has voted to increase the local levy for 2014-15 on councils by 3.3%.
The levy, which will now total £2.1m, pays for a range of flood defence and management projects.
A total of £150m is being invested by Northumbrian Water from 2010-15 to help protect homes.
Schemes costing £6.5m are under way in Chester-le-Street, Gosforth in Newcastle, South Shields, Washington and Birtley in Gateshead.
In the main Ocean Road in South Shields, 400m of piping is being upgraded and an underground tank installed to hold storm water.
Studies are also being carried out in several areas on how drainage and sewerage systems are working and to identify potential problems, such as in parts of South Tyneside, including Monkton Village, Lukes Lane, and the Lakes estate in Hebburn.
“We are experiencing more frequent storm downpours, possibly linked to climate change which are putting a greater load on drainage networks,” said company commuications manager Alistair Baker.