Water floods a row of terrace houses along the banks of the River Severn in February 2014. Photo: Getty
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The million households threatened by climate change must unite as a political force

A new system of flood insurance for British households called Flood Re is due to be approved by the House of Lords today. But it fails to factor in climate change.

“An Englishman’s home is his castle”, goes the old saying. The way the government’s flood insurance plans are going, we may soon need to start digging our own moats. Today the House of Lords is set to give its seal of approval to a new system of flood insurance for British households, called Flood Re. It has many good points: it seeks to keep flood insurance affordable for the most vulnerable, cross-subsidising those at highest risk through a small levy on all homes. But it has one fundamental flaw: it fails to factor in climate change.

This might seem a slight oversight, in light of today’s dire warnings from climate scientists​, and particularly after the UK has just experienced the wettest winter on record. But the Government’s Impact Assessment for the policy states plainly: ”the baseline scenario assumes that flood risk remains the same over time”.

This is clearly ludicrous. The Government’s own figures project that the number of homes at significant risk of flooding will accelerate from 370,000 currently, up to almost a million by the 2020s. The insurance industry agrees; as a recent briefing by the Association of British Insurers states, “Climate change is expected to increase the probability of flood events in the future, and the average annual damages arising from them.”

So what’s going on? Defra’s justification for their rejection of growing flood risk is to claim, “as a working hypothesis”, that “the effects of climate change and investments in flood defences are broadly offsetting.” But it is patently untrue that investment in flood defences has kept pace with rising seas and worsening downpours. Ministers were warned by the Environment Agency in 2009 that much higher investment would be needed just to stop more homes sliding into flood risk; the Coalition responded by slashing flood defence spending. The Committee on Climate Change have recently warned that a half-billion pound gap has emerged between what the Coalition have spent and what’s actually needed.

The insurance industry, for their part, have a pressing interest in reducing the general risk posed to their business by climate change. It was their lobbying last summer, as negotiations over Flood Re came close to breaking-point, that forced Ministers to promise slightly increased spending on flood defences after the next election. But don’t imagine for a moment that this amounts to the state shouldering responsibility for protecting all its citizens from climate change. Current spending trajectories will lead to at least 250,000 more homes becoming at flood risk over the next twenty years. The Treasury has no intention of suddenly taking on new financial obligations, even when these constitute protecting people’s homes and livelihoods; as a Defra briefing icily notes, “we are clear that there is no Government liability for Flood Re”. Unfortunately, the insurance industry, sick of delays and bruised by endless fights with Treasury mandarins, has accepted these crumbs as being good enough for now.

But it gets worse. Because Flood Re isn’t even a permanent settlement; it has a sunset clause, meaning it will expire after 25 years. Every five years, it will reduce in scope, moving from a system of progressive cross-subsidy to ‘risk-reflective pricing’ - in other words, to a free market in flood insurance. So while climate change is pushing more and more households into flood risk, flood premiums will be becoming less affordable. ‘Risk-reflective pricing’ is meant to incentivise at-risk households into taking steps to prepare for flooding - such as installing door guards or airbrick covers. But even the insurance firms think such measures can only do so much against serious floods, and they would rather preserve the cross-subsidy system indefinitely. The impetus to return to a free market and push responsibility onto individuals is coming from Ministers with an ideological axe to grind, notably Owen Paterson. Perhaps his dream is for everyone to adopt the enterprising outlook of the Somerset millionaire who tried defending his mansion from flooding by building his own private moat.

In a civilised society, would it not be more sensible to pool our risk collectively? We have a social security system, after all, that provides (for now) a safety net against involuntary unemployment, sickness and destitution. As climate change increases the number of households at risk of flooding - through no fault of their own - we should surely seek to provide them with a modicum of environmental security. This requires governments to accept that paying for flood defences is a public good that they can’t shirk, and that climate change necessitates this investment to rise over time. Of course, austerity-minded Chancellors are unlikely to swallow this readily. But perhaps two things can help persuade them.

The first is that governments need not spend this money indefinitely, if they pull their fingers out in tackling climate change in the first place. We know that it will cost much less to cut emissions than to adapt to the consequences. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more it will flood, so prevention is obviously better than cure.

The second is that the rising numbers of households being put at flood risk could come together as a serious political force. They are in the frontline of climate change impacts in the UK, and as they come to realise this, it seems highly unlikely they will remain quiet for long. Divided, they are like so many stranded homes facing rising floodwaters; united, they could constitute an unstoppable tide for change.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.