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.

Photo: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
Show Hide image

We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.