Storm damage throughout Scotland and the North-east of England in the past few days could lead to a flood of claims of up to pounds 1bn against insurance companies, a leading firm of loss adjusters claimed yesterday.
The Balcombe Group, an insurance claims specialist, said it had been inundated by calls, from large firms and households facing losses so far estimated at more than pounds 500m.
The chief executive, Nick Balcombe, said: "We believe these estimates are on the conservative side. I have spent the last two days in Scotland and we were dealing with an unprecedented number of cases.
"Work in Scotland resumed a day after England, so the true scale of any damage, especially to commercial premises, will not be known for some time. I would not be surprised if it turns out to be the most expensive natural disaster in the UK."
Previous expensive claims against insurance companies range between pounds 1.5bn from the October 1987 storms, to pounds 195m after the February 1991 floods.
The Association of British Insurers, the industry's trade body, said it was too soon to form a detailed picture of the extent of this year's claims. A more exact idea would probably emerge in a month's time. However, insurers were quick to play down the Balcombe Group's claims.
Commercial Union said: "We feel the damage will be substantially less than pounds 500m. So far we have had 1,500 claims admitted, which really is not above the average.
"We did wonder whether it would be necessary to send special teams up to Scotland, but the information from our Scottish branches was that it was not necessary."
A Royal Insurance spokesman added: "We did open up on New Year's Day because we thought there would be a lot of people with problems. But the situation is unlikely to be as serious as past events, mainly because the damage has been localised mainly to Scotland, the North-east and the East Coast."
Paul Locke, marketing services manager at Eagle Star, said: "This is the sort of thing that we would have bargained for. This kind of event is not out of the ordinary and we would not expect it to have an affect on household insurance rates."
Mr Balcombe added: "We have been in this market for five generations, covering all sorts of damage claims in recent years. I would not say that we are 100 per cent accurate, but we are generally pretty close."