The government plans to promote cross-public sector working, and a pooling of resources, in order to plug the gaps in its environment budget, amid repeated calls for flood-defence schemes to be spared more cash.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is pursuing an initiative known as Total Environment (TE) – based on the 'community-based budgets' scheme set to be unveiled in the localism bill – to focus on development of local environmental commissions aimed at saving money.
These will consist of a range of partners, including local councils, the Environment Agency, Natural England, local communities, and planning, education and housing bodies.
Environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, and Local Government Association (LGA) chair, Margaret Eaton, launched the TE initiative at a summit in central London.
Councillor Gary Porter, chair of the LGA environment board, said: "Linking grass-roots projects to national expertise has the twin effect of improving the outcomes of the project, while helping shape national policy for the better. We're hoping the existing projects will demonstrate how local councils and social enterprise can deliver better environmental outcomes for less money, and also identify unnecessary regulatory roadblocks."
There are 14 councils currently taking part in pilot schemes to develop TE – in the hope of achieving a better use of resources for environmental planning and sustainability issues. Kirklees is leading on climate change, while Manchester is exploring waste-management opportunities. Bristol is developing a 'green volunteering' project, and Hampshire is working on an integrated vision of the sustainable management of the natural environment.
Lincolnshire county council has been given the flood-risk element to develop in recognition of work already under way in the county, which established a partnership framework in anticipation of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.
The Association for Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport felt that insufficient money had been allocated to flood-risk management, even before the spending review.
Former president, Richard Wills, who is an LGA adviser and executive director of development services at Lincolnshire county council, said: "We know for certain that demand for flood defence expenditure was already outstripping supply. Clearly, this will not improve following the comprehensive spending review.
The benefit-to cost-ratio for the Environment Agency's current flood risk-management schemes is at least eight to one. So it is essential that the flood-risk management partners work together to agree who is best at dealing with which risks, and minimise the financial demands on citizens."
Richard Belfield, Lincolnshire's assistant director for environment, who is leading the council's TE work, said the initiative would develop a new way of working around delivery of all water management activity – including flood risk.
He explained this would involve developing new accountabilities with partners, including district councils, to reflect the localism agenda of putting communities in charge of how, and where, public money was spent.
He said the TE initiative had many potential benefits for the county, which would include pulling more of its £3.5bn annual public sector spend towards flood and water management.
Currently, just £35m is spent on such activity in Lincolnshire despite 40% of the county's area and 225,000 people being at risk of some form of serious flooding.
He also revealed: "The TE initiative will [also] look at new ways of raising funding through, for example, local taxation and levies, which can then be directed on a local needs basis more readily than some of the national funding pots."
But, ministers were warned: "We will be very keen, though, that such outcomes do not alleviate the government from thinking that they don't have some national priorities to fund."
Nick Appleyard is senior reporter on Surveyor magazine