Flood-hit Westcountry councils may be forced to raid their emergency financial reserves as the clear-up bill is set to top £50 million.
Politicians have welcomed the Government overhauling its emergency aid programme and pledging an extra £37 million to local authorities amid David Cameron’s promise “money is no object” in the flood relief effort.
But the region’s council bosses have said they are preparing to dip into their savings as they fear the help will not cover the full costs.
While estimates have yet to be finalised, authorities are counting the cost of everything from providing sandbanks to damaged harbours and roads.
Cornwall Council reckons damage to its assets could reach £25 million, and Devon County Council is expecting to have to pay for more than the £9 million of repairs needed after last year’s storms. Vast swathes of Somerset remain underwater but the county council but could face the biggest bill of all.
Both Plymouth City Council and Torbay Council are having to patch up battered waterfronts which could add more than one million pounds to the bill.
Politicians remain nervous despite a more generous Bellwin flood aid package and introducing a severe weather recovery fund.
Cornwall councillor Alex Folkes said the area would be “wide open to any sort of emergency situation in the future” without government help.
In light of storms that bruised the South West, ministers reduced the “excess” threshold councils paid before central government cash kicked in, and promised to pay for 100% of the costs above that rather than the usual 85%.
But roads, docks and other infrastructure are not covered by the so-called Bellwin scheme, potentially leaving already cash-strapped councils to pick up a hefty tab.
While £37 million has been ting-fenced for council flood recovery, principally for transport, who gets the money has yet to be determined.
Liberal Democrat Mr Folkes, Cornwall’s cabinet member for finance, hoped Bellwin will cover around £4 million. But questions remain over more than £20 million of extra costs.
He said: “When a house floods the homeowner can claim on their insurance to put it right. It is horrible and a distressing experience, but there is the route to making good. In the case of council-owned infrastructure, largely it cannot be insured and so we are left with the whole bill and, thanks to (Local Government Secretary) Eric Pickles’ edicts, councils have run down their repairs to the state where we can barely afford to do the work on our own.
“Our reserves should be just enough, but we cannot afford to put money back into reserves in the near future and this would leave us wide open to any sort of emergency situation in the future.”
Last winter, Devon County Council was left with a bill of around £9 million, receiving around £3.5 million in Bellwin compensation, and this year is expected to easily top that figure.
Officials say the clear-up of the storm damage is estimated to cost £3 million to the end of the financial year, but the authority is yet to finalise a figure for the damage caused by the storms as work to assess the road network and structures is ongoing.
However, the number of teams dealing with potholes – a huge problem across the vast network of roads – has increased almost three-fold to 34 from 13.
The most recent storm overnight Friday into Saturday brought down around 400 trees with more than 260 reports of flooding on roads and 16 embankment and land slips.
Conservative councillor Stuart Hughes, cabinet member for highway management and flood prevention, said the clear-up is much more difficult this year.
“These storms have also illustrated how fragile our road network is. Coastal areas have taken the biggest hit but we’re seeing severe damage right across our network,” he said.
“The Government has said that it will foot the bill for the storm damage but the problem we’re likely to find is where roads have been washed away and need reinstating or potentially moving further inland, the capital required for permanent repairs won’t be covered by the Bellwin scheme, even in its revised form.”
Plymouth’s foreshore was hit hard, and the city council currently thinks the Bellwin scheme will fall short of covering the clean-up costs of flooding, trees lost and general infrastructure damage.
Labour councillor Mark Lowry, cabinet member for finance, added: “As Britain’s Ocean City, we have an extraordinary waterfront which is a big attraction in and for Plymouth but which has been battered by the weather. Our historic Tinside Lido incurred considerable damage and we are waiting for a full survey to be carried out to get a scale of the cost of repairs.
“Given our MPs support for Britain’s Ocean City and the demands (Conservative MP) Oliver Colvile makes on the council to improve the foreshore, perhaps he can lobby the Prime Minister to get adequate compensation and support?”
Torbay Council said it had suffered damage to promenades, harbour fronts, breakwaters and beach huts with further costs associated with flooding and torn-down trees.
A spokesman for the authority said the main areas were Torquay seafront, Meadfoot sea wall and Oddicombe beach with estimated costs of between up to £500,000.
“Subject to central Government confirmation, the council is anticipating that the costs will be covered by the Bellwin scheme which pays costs over a threshold of the total bill for uninsurable costs of emergency works caused by storm damage,” the spokesman added.
“Any expenditure below this threshold will be met from contingency funds or insurance reserves.”
Somerset County Council has so far been unable to put a figure on the vast clean-up which will be required when the waters subside as so much land remains submerged. A spokesman added: “We are fairly unique in that much of our land and bridges are underwater.
“The A361 is completely underwater and there’s no way we can know what damage has been done: it is just impossible at the moment.”