Crazy paving causes flood woes

Will it take a British New Orleans before we take flooding planning seriously?

It's starting to seem normal. Storms since Friday, accompanied by frighteningly heavy showers across the UK, have caused floods, havoc and tragedy.

Workers trapped in a factory in the West Midlands; the Gardener's Question Time summer garden party almost ruined by rain 'like stair-rods'; the death of a soldier swept away by a swollen river in Yorkshire; schools closed in Sheffield; and thousands of homes ruined in towns and villages from Wales to Norfolk. A century ago, these would have been called 'the big floods' for years to come but the sad fact is we'll probably see the same thing happen again before Christmas.

With good timing, inadequate investment in flood defences was highlighted in a report on Friday by the National Audit Office. They found that our defences – maintained by the Environment Agency – were in peak condition in less than half of high-risk areas, and that protection is often in the wrong place, defending farmland rather than centres of population.

And it isn't just the building of barriers to rising sea levels that is a problem. Other, seemingly harmless, land-use decisions can also have serious consequences in helping make floods part of our daily lives.

The trend to pave over front-gardens in London has led to a dramatic loss of surfaces that absorb water from heavy showers. The permeable land area lost recently is 22 times the size of Hyde Park, according to the London Assembly's Environment Committee's 'Crazy Paving' report in 2005.

Each decision to have a parking space rather than a front lawn has combined to increase the city’s vulnerability to flash-flooding several times. According to the Stern Review last year, “Each individual decision may be rational, but in aggregate this loss of permeable land will leave a legacy for future generations living in London.”

The risk of more city floods can only increase as climate change takes hold properly in the future. A month's worth of rain in 24 hours may never be 'normal' but we can expect it to be a regular occurrence.

In this new climate, plans to build homes on flood plains start to look like madness. With forty percent of homes in the South of England at serious risk of flooding already, building hundreds of thousands of new homes in the Thames Gateway (its name a bit of a giveaway as to its proximity to rising waters) makes no sense at all. The Stern Review recommended limiting construction on flood plains as a way of minimising the cost of climate change, but the government and London planners are intent on ignoring this advice.

Acknowledging its flood-defence failures to date, the Environment Agency is now looking for £150 million in extra funding from this year's comprehensive spending review. I hope they get this and more; a recent study in Scotland found that the psychological impact of losing treasured belongings in floods can take years to get over, lasting long after financial losses have been forgotten.

Despite the certainty of climate change in the future, property damage now is not inevitable. The great front garden tragedy in London could have easily been avoided with a small change in local planning guidelines, and was highlighted by the Greens in London very early on.

Similarly we've opposed the Thames Gateway approach to providing housing for London's growing population, pointing out that a combination of filling empty homes and building on brownfield sites can increase the supply of homes without pushing people into places that will be regularly under water within a decade or two.

The government needs a more coherent and comprehensive attitude to flood planning. If they fail, we could easily end up with large numbers of people unable to get household insurance, unable to sell their houses and condemned to a slow decline into poverty and slum housing conditions.

Arguably, government's 'job number one' is to plan for and provide secure homes for those who elect them. Things like flood risks are simple enough problems to identify, and the consequences of failure potentially so appalling, that the current culture of neglect is inexcusable. Will it take a much bigger tragedy, a British New Orleans, to sort this out?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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