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11 December 2000

In England’s wet and windy land

Even flooding discriminates socially. As the waters recede, Judy Hirst finds the poor at the back of

By Judy Hirst

Minister for floods? Until recently, it was a job title with about as much gravitas as minister for silly walks. But Elliot Morley, who holds this brief, has been a busy chap after the worst floods for 50 years. With £35bn worth of assets and countless lives potentially at risk from inland flooding, the sodden state of our flood-plains now rivals the sorry state of our schooling for dinner-party conversation.

There’s no shortage of ideas about what to do. Bigger and better flood barriers. Sustainable farming and housing developments. Wider rivers. Homes on stilts. The problem with all this stuff is that the bill would run into zillions – a major drawback for authorities that cannot even provide their residents with adequate flood warnings and a few sandbags.

Most good estimates indicate that what Britain spends on flood defences is about half of what is needed; and that’s without allowing for climate change. One of the world’s biggest insurance groups, CGNU, reckons that, by the year 2065, the cost of the damage caused by global warming will have outstripped world GDP. So who is going to pay for these ever rainier days?

It is a question of more than academic interest to Sue Field, one of the many thousands whose homes and businesses were ruined in this autumn’s storms and floods. Her Lewes pet shop and flat were swamped within hours of the River Ouse bursting its banks. She and her husband waded through sewage and diesel-polluted water to rescue hundreds of rabbits, hamsters and other livestock. Two months on, they are still wrangling with their insurers over how many of their remaining dog bowls and cat collars are resellable, or over the precise cost of replacing their floor. At this rate, the business will not reopen until next spring.

Even more worryingly, they do not have a clue what it will cost to reinsure the place, or whether they will get cover at all. City analysts predict that insurance companies will blacklist or “red-line” some flood-risk areas – in effect, making them uninsurable – and that the availability of premiums for others will depend on local authorities giving far greater guarantees about flood defences. No wonder ministers keep saying that this autumn’s floods were a wake-up call. As the fetid waters recede and the loss adjusters move in, the nasty realisation is dawning that climate change could prove a very costly business, and that insurers are increasingly reluctant to pick up the tab. In some parts of the Midlands, according to the Flood Hazard Research Centre, people were still trying to sort out claims 18 months after the severe floods of Easter 1998.

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As always, it is the poor who suffer most. Many of them are underinsured; a quarter of the population have no contents cover at all. When disaster strikes, these families are dependent on charity, crisis loans and other state aid to get their lives back together. Worse still, the better off tend to get priority for flood defences because, according to the government’s cost-benefit formula, the value of the land and property being protected must be great enough to make it worthwhile saving.

In other words, swanky homes on “millionaires’ bank” in Maidenhead count more than, say, a row of workmen’s cottages in Selby or South Wales. It is easy to see how this approach can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with repeated flooding driving down house prices and land values, and the most deprived communities getting screwed twice over.

Where does this leave people who live in areas at risk of flooding? In the short term, there’s the Bellwin scheme, a discretionary cash-back arrangement drawn up by a former Tory environment minister. Under its recently revised rules, if a council has to spend so much on an emergency that it amounts to more than 0.2 per cent of its total budget, it will get all the money back from the government. The floods minister claims that the things councils can bill them for are “really quite broad”. However, most local authorities expect the emergency fund to meet only a small proportion of their knock-on costs.

In East Sussex, for example, the county council is submitting a claim of more than £6m, the largest part of which is for the likely expense of re-laying flood-damaged roads. It expects to get very little of this back under Bellwin, which is strictly for things such as rescue centres, emergency workers’ overtime and temporary repairs. Nor will this fund do much to help the already overstretched social services and housing departments that cope with thousands of displaced families, most of whom will not return to their homes for six to nine months. The money spent will mean increased council taxes and service cuts elsewhere.

For the longer term, Morley emphasises that the Treasury has set aside an extra £51m, over four years, to shore up the country’s flood defences; and that his department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is heading an interdepartmental flood-management review. However, according to research commissioned by the ministry, more than £400m needs to be spent each year just to maintain the existing defence infrastructure.

In the light of such figures, the proposed increase is a mere bagatelle. At a recent meeting in Lewes town hall, the local Environment Agency spokesman admitted that coastal, rather than inland, flood defences had been given priority in recent years. So why, people asked, should they bother drying out their homes, or replacing their carpets, when the same disaster or worse could happen all over again?

Civil servants and politicians have known for years that our flood defences are seriously underfunded. They know this because the Environment Agency has repeatedly told them so. But the problem is that, unlike schools, hospitals or crime prevention, flood barriers are not exactly glamorous items to be seen spending money on. Nor are the communities most at risk generally ones with political clout. In York, it was the outlying villages, not the historic city centre, that bore the brunt of the recent flooding. Wear Valley, a deprived area where 1,000 people were flooded out in June, has barely left a dent on the national conscience.

The government denies that it is skimping on flood defence, or that it puts a higher value on protecting posher homes. Still, there are good reasons to be sceptical. Short-term political and commercial considerations, rather than respect for life and limb, are what led local authorities to ignore Environment Agency advice and build millions of new homes on flood-plains in the first place. The Local Government Association wants funding for storm-proof pylons, flood-resistant railway tracks and permeable ground surfaces that would allow excess water to drain away. But how likely is that in a country where it can take all night to get by train from London to Nottingham, and where responsibility for flood defence is fragmented between hundreds of different agencies?

Andrew Dlugolecki, a leading climate expert and former CGNU director, argues that the Thames barrier will need renewing early, within 20 years, at a cost running to billions; that Britain’s Victorian sewers and drains cannot stand up to repeated flash-flooding; that historical data about the likelihood of severe flooding is now virtually useless; and that the resource implications of climate change are far greater than hitherto imagined. Even allowing for the natural inclination of insurance specialists to talk up risk, it is a daunting long-term prospect.

However, as the climate conference in The Hague graphically illustrated, big business doesn’t do long term, and our home-grown variety is no exception. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, may have self-righteously flounced out of the talks, but Britain is as unlikely as anyone else to control fossil-fuel emissions by anything beyond a token amount.

It is not for nothing that floods, storms and other natural disasters have traditionally been treated by insurers as “acts of God”. As floods of biblical proportions threaten to return, and the politicians, bureaucrats and insurers retreat – metaphorically at least – to the hills, it is increasingly a case of apres nous le deluge. To those down below, mopping up the mess, the warning is clear. You’re on your own.