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: Getty Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research