UK floods: prevention is better than cure. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.