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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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