The folly of building on floodplains
IT HAS been a strange spring, even by British standards. After sweltering through the hottest April for over a century and shivering during an unusually cold May, the country was deluged by the wettest June since records began. Up to seven people died in the subsequent floods; 27,000 homes and 5,000 businesses had to be evacuated. Firemen and paramedics described the rescue efforts as the biggest-ever in peacetime. Insurers gave warning that the final bill would be more than £1 billion.
As the waters began to drain away and the displaced to trickle home, politicians promised action. Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, said local authorities would be given money to help with the clean-up. Hilary Benn, the environment minister, pledged to boost spending on flood defences from £600m now to £800m a year by 2011.
The extra money will be welcome, but will not address the fundamental problem: England's penchant for building houses in silly places (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all much stricter). Some £200 billion-worth of houses, businesses and other infrastructure is at risk from flooding. One in ten new houses are being built in similarly risky places, including 31,000 planned for Ashford in Kent and 120,000 in London's Thames Gateway.
These new homes are needed to accommodate a growing population, especially in England's south-east. Often a flood plain is the only land available. Most of the remaining land in that part of the country is protected because it is scientifically interesting, or because the government wants to discourage building on green belts around the cities.
Officials insist that flood risk is taken seriously. Planning laws were tightened last year, and the Environment Agency given more clout. But its advice has often been ignored in the past, and Gordon Brown has already made it clear that he wants plenty of new houses built.
Insurance may be a bigger constraint on house-builders than planning rules. Thanks to an agreement in 1961, until recently insurers protected all homes against flood in return for the state's promise to pay for flood defences.
That changed after an inundation in 2000 produced £1 billion in claims. Nowadays, insurance for new homes in flood zones is often more expensive than in less risky areas and occasionally impossible to obtain, which should make it harder to buy houses at risk from flooding. But ministers don't seem to be listening: a third of the area earmarked by the government for new housing lies on flood plains. Some observers worry that homes which turn out to be uninsurable will simply be used as social housing for the poor.
The Association of British Insurers, an industry body, says that the flood risk in the Thames Gateway is so high that many of the homes there should have their living space upstairs (and, presumably, garages below). Another option might be to learn from the Netherlands and its long experience of flooding. There, inventors have come up with floating houses that slide up and down on steel rails. The Dutch might find a ready market for their designs in Britain.