Give us data on flood defences, say insurers

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The Independent Online

New homes built on sites vulnerable to flooding could be uninsurable if the Government fails to release up-to-date information it holds on flood defences, insurers warned yesterday.

Insurance companies are calling for access to a National Flood and Coastal Defence database held by the Environment Agency, which they say has details of all flood defences, when they were built and what condition they are in.

The floods last month caused damage estimated at more than £1.5bn in Yorkshire and the Midlands. The Royal & SunAlliance revealed that its exposure is £55m, while Norwich Union's owner, Aviva, said its exposure is expected to get close to £175m.

A report by the National Audit Office has revealed that only 57 per cent of flood defence systems are deemed to be in good condition.

Jon Sellors, a spokesman for Royal & SunAlliance, said insurers had been given limited information on the risk of flood determined by postcode. Insurers want access to the full database constructed by the Environment Agency, he said.

According to Mr Sellors, insurers are being asked to pay for the information, which is protected under the Re-use of Public Sector Information Act. "Insurers should be exempt from paying for it as we need that information to provide flood coverage," he said.

Under the "statement of principles" agreed between the Government and the insurance industry in 2002, insurers said they would insure properties against flooding if the Government maintained flood defences and provided accurate information on them. Mr Sellors said that if insurers had to pay for data, the cost would have to be passed on to the customer.

Without access to this information, insurers would not be able to guarantee they could insure new homes built on flood plains, Mr Sellors said.

"We need to examine why we are continuing to build on flood plains," he added. "We will continue to insure properties that were already insured and will continue to take on new business where defences are in place or planned," he said.

Last week, the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn pledged that government spending on flood defences will rise to £800m a year in 2010. The Environment Agency is calling for £1bn a year to be spent on flood defences by 2030, as recommended in a government report.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency denied that insurers were not given all available data on flooding. "It is not in our best interest to withhold any information," he said. "All flood data is made available free of charge." He added that flood mapping was sold on for commercial usage.

Malcolm Tarling, a spokesman for the Association of British Insurers, said: "Providing there are accurate flood defences in place, then insurers will continue to offer flood cover."

He added that it was important that flood defences are improved and that insurers are given data that is as accurate as possible.

"This situation is continually under review," he said. "Upgrading flood defences is a continual process."