Julian Knight: We cannot keep soaking up the threat of flooding
Whether caused by climate change or home building, the tide will not be turned by insurers
Sunday 30 December 2012
This Christmas introduced a completely new experience – driving in my wellington boots. In order to get to friends and family around the country I had to ford several rivers, avoid fallen trees and cope with zero visibility and that was just on the M6.
But a miserable and soggy journey is nothing compared to the experience of those who have been flooded out of their homes or business. It seems that each year around this time we have a fairly catastrophic weather event, although the perception that things are getting worse is in part because of 24-hour news we see much more of floods that have always happened. There is nothing more appealing it seems to rolling news producers than to have a reporter clad in North Face standing solemnly by a swollen river, it's the cheapest of cheap television.
Without wishing to get into the minutiae of climate change there is, from the evidence of my own eyes, something going on with the weather here in the UK. For instance, I heard of one restaurateur based in the Severn valley who has had his business flooded out no fewer than four times in a year. You wonder whether or not some locations in the UK are becoming uninhabitable, reclaimed by the sea, the river or even the high water table.
And we are making things worse by building on flood plains. A few years back I was walked through a leading insurer's most advanced flood mapping technology – much more in depth than publicly available through the environment agency at the time. The scenarios for large swathes of the country to be regularly inundated were frightening.
Yet we are living in denial it seems still. All and sundry seem to believe that the insurers will just continue to cover property which frankly is becoming or will soon be a write-off. Which insurer, for instance, in their right mind would offer cover for the restaurant flooded four times this year alone?
Of course, the insurance industry realises that telling the truth would cause huge damage not just to its reputation but to the wider economy. Although we love to bash insurers, they have been trying to reach an accommodation with the government since 2000 – namely “We will continue to cover homes and businesses at risk – funded through higher general premiums as well as hiked costs to the worst affected – provided more is spent on flood defences.”
As I have reported several times in recent months these negotiations have not gone well and there is only six months before the present entente expires. For people such as the restaurateur, I hope they come to an agreement soon. However, if the models that I have seen are right – or an underestimate – then this will only be a temporary fix.
Perhaps in reality we shouldn't be cossetted in this way and we should truly gauge the costs of climate change. I'm particularly worried that this Government's desperate attempts to get the private sector to build more houses will just put more lives in harms way of the flood waters. Maybe it's time we looked at where we live on these small isles rather than rely on an insurance sleight of hand?
False housing market
A Halifax press release slipped down my inbox chimney the other day proclaiming that first-time buyer numbers are now at their highest level since 2007.
Greater mortgage availability, slightly looser lending criteria and softer prices in many parts of the UK are given as the reasons. But in the small print Halifax admitted there are still 50 per cent fewer first-time buyers than in 2006 – an insight into a greater truth about the UK housing market. Transaction levels are so low compared to the norm that you can't draw many conclusions. The market hasn't had a normal trading day since 2007 and won't have one until the prop of artificially low interest rates is taken away – and guess where prices will go then?
There is no rush of first-time buyers, just a tiny shift in numbers in a distended and false market.
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