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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.