UK floods: prevention is better than cure. Photo: Getty
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Counting the £1bn cost of the winter floods

This week it's six months since the winter floods struck, and from the latest available figures it looks like the floods have cost the country over £1bn.

Six months ago, the UK was wracked by the wettest winter ever, leaving thousands of households flooded and devastating communities from Somerset to Hull. The risk of flooding is now out of the headlines, but for many families still counting the costs, the problem remains extremely real.

What's more, the likelihood of terrible floods is increasing: climatologists at Oxford University have recently calculated that climate change made the 2013-14 floods 25 per cent more likely. Faced with this prospect, it's clear the government needs to be doing all it can to bring down emissions and stop the costs of future flooding soaring still higher.

But what have the total costs of the most recent floods been? I've been reviewing the latest available figures and can conclude that the 2013-14 floods have cost the nation at least £1.1bn.

Here's how it breaks down:

1) Insurance claims: £451million

In March, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) estimated that insurance claims could be £446m. Friends of the Earth has since corresponded with the ABI, who told us in early June that "The final data collection suggested a cost of £451m for the winter floods" - and this is just for incurred insurance claims.

 

2) Uninsured costs: £130million

In February, PwC estimated that insurance claims from the floods would total £500m, and that total 'economic costs' would sum to £630m - in other words, additional uninsured costs would be around £130m.

Also in February, the NFU's head of policy services, Andrew Clarke, estimated that the cost of the floods to farmers could reach £50m-£100m. Some of this may be able to be claimed back through insurance; a portion of it may also be covered by the Government's Farming Recovery Fund (see below); but additional costs may still remain.

 

3) Central Government support and repairs: at least £540million

The Government states it has made £540m available for flood recovery, in the form of various grants for businesses, households, and farmers; for flood defence repairs; and for patching up transport infrastructure.

Not all of this money, however, has yet reached the intended beneficiaries. For example, farmers say just five per cent of the Government's Farming Recovery Fund has been paid out to them so far - with the grants of just £5k per farmer proving very bureaucratic to obtain and each form taking a fortnight to process.

The £270m made available for flood defence repairs, meanwhile, may not be sufficient to cover the total costs of damages. The grant was announced before full estimates of damages had been completed by the Environment Agency (EA). A joint review of the state of flood defence damages was completed by the EA and the British army before Easter, and reported that around 1,000 defences had been damaged or were undergoing repairs. Subsequently a more detailed appraisal was carried out by engineers, and the latest publicly-available statements from the EA's Flood Recovery Programme team suggest that the total number of damaged assets now stands at 1,300. A full breakdown of damaged defences is expected to be released in early July. Whether the costs of repair will exceed the £270m pot made available is as yet unknown.

A detailed analysis of the costs of the floods undertaken by Channel 4's Factcheck in early February came to a slightly higher figure for costs borne by the state being £583.6m. This used a slightly different methodology, adding in the costs of pumping water in the Somerset Levels, some estimated costs of repairing damaged rail track, and estimates for Local Authority claims under the Bellwin Scheme - the means by which flood-struck councils can recoup some of their costs from central government.

 

4) Local Government costs and claims under the Bellwin Scheme: at least £6.6m

A Freedom of Information request made by Friends of the Earth to the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has revealed that by early June, 13 local authorities had reported total costs of £6.6m, of which £4m has been above the Bellwin Scheme's thresholds and has therefore been submitted as claims to central government. However, this is unlikely to be the final figure, with applications open until the end of June and DCLG expecting further claims. The Local Government Association has said that it will take "some time" before the final costs are known.

 

5) Lost output due to closed businesses, travel disruptions and blackouts: unknown

Travel disruption over the winter was considerable, with the Westcountry effectively cut off for two months after coastal surges destroyed a stretch of rail track near Dawlish. The Department of Energy & Climate Change record that almost one million customers were affected by power disruptions during the Christmas storms. The Office of National Statistics states that there is some evidence that construction output was affected by the storms and floods.

 

6) Longer-term costs?

Longer-term costs at this stage remain hard to estimate, but the 7,800 homes that were flooded during the winter could well see their insurance premiums go up, while the value of the houses could be dented. There is also a feared longer-term impact on agricultural land prices in Somerset, where the fertility of fields were badly affected by being underwater for months.

 

Conclusion: prevention is better than cure

When the coalition first entered office, it slashed spending on new flood defences and cut maintenance. This is now looking like a terrible false economy, and the government is having to pay far more to mop up the mess left by the floods than it cut originally.

The Committee on Climate Change warns there is now a half-billion pound shortfall between flood defence investment and what's needed to keep pace with our changing climate. The government needs to invest properly in flood management, but most of all it needs to ratchet down the emissions causing climate change - which if left unchecked will lead to ever-more costly floods in the future.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit