Sandy cost the US $50bn, could have been averted for $15bn

Prevention is better than cure.

The FT's Jason Abbruzzese has posted the Moody's Analytics estimates of the economic damage of Hurricane Sandy. The firm puts the cost of lost output at $19.9bn, and the damages at a further $30bn:

Abbruzzese writes:

If the $50bn total turns out to be accurate, it will make Hurricane Sandy the fourth costliest US disaster behind Hurricane Katrina, the attacks of September 11, and Hurricane Andrew.

Putting a dollar amount on a disaster which has claimed nearly 100 lives in the US, and almost as many in the other countries throughout North America which have been hit, may seem distasteful, especially since the death toll is likely to continue rising. But that figure helps put in context stories like this, by Matthew Yglesias:

A 2009 seminar hosted at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University considered several options for major infrastructure upgrades to combat storm surges—a barrier at the south end of the Arthur Kill that divides Staten Island from New Jersey, an East River barrier to prevent surges up that narrow waterway, a barrier perpendicular to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and most ambitiously a “Gateway Barrier System” stretching from Sandy Hook to the Rockaways. Engineers don’t believe it would be feasible for the Gateway system to entirely block storm surges, but it could weaken and deflect them—significantly reducing the flood risks to the entire New York Harbor…

It would, of course, be expensive. The estimates presented at the seminar suggest a ballpark figure of $15 billion. But even if that turns out to be a substantial underestimate, it’s a bargain compared to the cost of widespread flooding.

Compared to $50bn, that $15bn looks increasingly tempting.

Cars float in a flooded garage. 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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.