It's a washout

As the rain deluge continues, can Britain keep its head above water? Jonathan Brown

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The Independent Online

Back in the fabled summer of 1976, Denis Howell had only been in his job as Minister for Drought for three days when the inevitable happened. After weeks in which Britain had been slowly sautéed in its flares, while those workers who were not on strike were issued with salt tablets to stop them dehydrating and standpipes were set up in the streets, it began to pour.

No such luck for Caroline Spelman, who is rapidly becoming David Cameron's Minister for Rain. The Environment Secretary has been meeting flood victims in the South-west and on Sunday was given a briefing by experts at the Met Office. The outlook was not good.

Following the wettest June on record, Britain is now on course to challenge the rain-lashed Edwardian summer of 1912 – the year the Titanic sank, and 384.4mm precipitation fell. However, the good news for Ms Spelman, who has already announced a further £2bn to boost flood defences, is that there is still some way to go before 2012 rivals 1816 – the notorious "year without a summer".

Then, before the advent of reliable datasets, rioting and hunger were the product of summer frosts and 142 days of near-continuous rain between May and September. It's not as bad as that yet – although, if some longer-term forecasts are to be believed, the current spate of Atlantic lows, ushered in on an unusually southerly jet stream, is expected to keep sweeping over us until the end of the month, doing for the Olympics what they have already done for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

Already, signs are emerging that the conditions might be dampening more than the feelgood factor which the Government had hoped might help us ride out the double-dip recession in something approaching a warm glow of national wellbeing.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) yesterday said the four-day Jubilee bank holiday weekend helped retailers keep their head above water. Like-for-like sales over the first half of 2012 grew just 0.8 per cent on the previous year. While party food and alcohol sales were buoyant, as were new TVs and tablet devices, traditional summer sellers such as barbecues and gardening items, outdoor furniture and summer clothing all suffered.

The one bright point was the continued growth in online sales, which saw a 12 per cent boost as customers chose to stay dry and do their shopping indoors.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: "Sadly the soggy celebrations over the Jubilee weekend itself, which heralded the start of the wettest June on record, were followed by far weaker business for the rest of the month."

The full impact of the monsoon summer will only begin to be seen later this month, with the release of the second quarter's GDP figures, which take in both April and June.

In the meantime there are indications that key sectors in the economy are being hit. Farmers in Yorkshire estimate they have seen the worst growing conditions for crops in nearly three decades.

Phil Bicknell, chief economist of the National Farmers Union, said harvests could be delayed by up to two weeks while cold and low light levels more consistent with February than with June could also have an adverse impact on growers.

The full effect of waterlogged fields and the delays in silage and haymaking is not yet known.

Meanwhile, English winemakers said the next 10 days will be crucial to the 2012 vintage, with sunshine and warmth urgently required to ripen grapes in southern vineyards.

The cost of flood damage is also likely to be severe. With one or even two month's worth of rain routinely falling in one go since the beginning of last month, there has been widespread damage to property in regions, particularly the South-west and the North-east. The Association of British insurers estimates the cost so far in the "low hundreds of millions".

Transport has also been severely hit. Last month rail links between England and Scotland were severed when landslides closed both East and West Coast mainlines. On Friday services in Yorkshire and the North West were also disrupted following torrents of rain including the service between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport.

Organisers of outdoor events have also been left out of pocket. Country shows from Cornwall to Cleveland have been cancelled while the Taste of Edinburgh Festival was also called off due to flooding. The British Horseracing Authority said 24 flat races had been abandoned, costing the industry an estimated £1.2m. There are also fears over the condition of Hyde Park, in London, due to host open-air concerts in the run-up to the Olympics.