Should we be paying for people to live on flood plains?

Unless we want to rehouse hundreds of thousands of people: yes.

Another bucketload of rain emptied over another part of Great Britain has reignited the debate about how and whether the state should spread the risk of flooding.

On the Today programme this morning, Mary Dhonau, a flood campaigner, went to the heart of the matter:

The statement of principles [the deal between the insurance industry and the government, where the industry provides cover and the government provides money and pays for flood defences] is going to expire. It was only ever a temporary sticking plaster…

Now I hear that the talks have broken down. This has the potential to be huge for many flood victims. 200,000 [households] deemed at significant risk of flooding could find that their flood insurance is removed altogether, and then – if we enter a free market – we could enter a crazy market where the normal man on the street will be unable to afford flood insurance. They could also be penalised with huge excesses.

The average insurance claim is about £30,000, so unless we can knock heads together and get government and the industry talking again, and find a suitable solution, then the solution for all the flood victims that I care so much about looks really bleak.

The problem is that there isn't widespread agreement that it would be a bad thing for people who live on flood-plains to be charged the market cost of insuring their homes.

The justification for the state of affairs at the moment is two-fold. Firstly: people currently live in flood plains, in huge numbers. Rendering their housing situation precarious, as it would be if they were unable to purchase flood insurance, would obviously be a really bad idea. And secondly, the country as a whole is experiencing a squeeze on affordable housing which would only get worse if the large number of houses in flood plains became uninhabitable.

However, there are arguments for the alternative side: in the "crazy market" which Dhonau fears, the cost of those houses would fall to a level which rendered the insurance affordable to people moving in to the area. Your choice would be normal priced house with normal priced insurance, or very cheap house with very expensive insurance. That solves the second of the fears, because we wouldn't be rendering those houses unusable – merely ensuring that the owners take the risk they have chosen to assume on themselves.

The big problem isn't the market in equilibrium, but the market at the point of the changeover. That is: the hitch in the policy is that there are 200,000 homes which were bought with the assumption that they would get subsidised insurance, and now may not. When that sort of thing happens to one person, the public policy response is usually "unlucky" – but when it happens to hundreds of thousands, there needs to be a more nuanced response.

As we wrote in July – when Caroline Spelman was apparently on the cusp of announcing a solution, before she was sacked from her role as environment secretary – the problem becomes even more acute if we factor in the fact that flood-prone areas are likely to grow in number:

The problem is that large swathes of the UK are prone to serious flooding. And as climate change bites, that's only going to get worse. It doesn't necessarily mean your house is definitely going to go underwater – if that were the case, you really should move – but it may be enough to render many places uninsurable.

And what then? It's all very well telling, say, the entire population of London, Kent and Essex east of the Thames Barrier that they are prone to flooding, but that isn't going to lead to them moving. Or, even worse, it might; Britain would be subject to development pressures like never before if that were the case.

With the comparatively small numbers involved, it may be possible to come up with some sort of legacy insurance – where your rate is subsidised provided you moved into the area before a certain date – which would impact the resale value of your home, but not render you without insurance while you still live there. But that solution isn't really scaleable.

Instead, the situation we are in is that we want people to carry on living in flood plains, because moving hundreds of thousands of people is basically impossible, but we also want them to have insurance, because otherwise we are one flood away from an even bigger crisis. And with those two priorities, it seems like spreading the cost out over the entire nation is the only real solution we have.

In the long run, there are things we can do: we can exempt new builds on flood plains from that subsidy; we can require gradually stricter "flood-resilience", as Mary Dhonau's house has, to qualify for the subsidy; we can even phase out the subsidy entirely, ensuring that we don't render any one generation suddenly homeless or uninsured. But in the short run – and the "principles" expire in just six months – there isn't much we can do other than carry on as we are. While that does mean we continue to (slightly counter-productively) subsidise people to live in flood plains, it is the least worst option.

Anne Bartlett and her dog Henry look out from their flooded property in the centre of the village of Ruishton, near Taunton. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.