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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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.