The town where 'untouchables' fear the worst

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The Independent Online

Derek Downes sloshed yet another bucket of brown river water out of the door of his terrace house in Shrewsbury yesterday afternoon and admitted that he feared he had joined a new class of British home-owner - a flood insurance "untouchable".

Derek Downes sloshed yet another bucket of brown river water out of the door of his terrace house in Shrewsbury yesterday afternoon and admitted that he feared he had joined a new class of British home-owner - a flood insurance "untouchable".

The management consultant, whose home sits less than 200 yards from the banks of the River Severn, was mopping up his home for the second time in as many years after a five-metre tide of water swept through the heart of the Shropshire town, creating its worst flood in 54 years.

Looking forlorn as his CD collection floated past along with his sofa cushions, Mr Downes said he expected to present a bill of around £8,000 to his insurers on top of the £10,000 claim he made after last being inundated in October 1998.

But as insurance companies admitted that the latest deluge to hit the country could result in home-owners living in high flood-risk areas being asked to pay higher premiums, Mr Downes and other Shrewsbury residents said they believed underwriters will soon refuse flood cover to repeated victims altogether - effectively creating an insurance sub-class on Britain's flood plains.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) denied the claim last night, saying that a widespread refusal of cover was unthinkable, but admitted individual companies could now begin to withdraw flood policies from specific customers.

Mr Downes, 54, said: "After the last time I was flooded my insurance company told me they would have to consider withdrawing cover if it started happening on a regular basis.

"Well here I am again 24 months later, up to my knees in river water and it is my very real fear that after this next claim I will be on my own. I feel like a member of some new class of the unwashed."

At the other end of the Shropshire town - where at least 200 businesses, 500 homes and two Gothic churches had by last night been flooded out or cut off - a similar opinion was held by Valerie Milton, a 36-year-old teacher. The ground floor of her Victorian home was under two inches of water despite an impressive array of sandbags at the front door. She said: "At the very least I expect my insurance premium to double and it doesn't feel fair. My house is more than 100 years old so it's hardly a new development placed recklessly in the path of the river.

"Climate change is bringing this about and yet we're the ones left to foot the bill."

The ABI, wary of provoking public anger at suggestions of alienating home owners, denied any risk of flood cover becoming generally unavailable to those in high-risk locations.

But a spokesman added: "The decision is down to individual companies and it is possible in some cases that cover may not be offered to some individuals where there have been repeated claims. That does not mean flood insurance becoming generally unavailable."

The insurance industry, which had been given its first glimpse of the possible multi-billion pound cost of global warming by this week's storms, also confirmed that targeting the premiums of home owners vulnerable to floods was likely.

Mike Biggs, executive director of general insurance for CGNU, said: "This does mean that people who live in certain areas, on flood plains or in river valleys, are likely to have to pay some more. Underwriting is about underwriting the likelihood of an event happening on a property. It seems not unreasonable to me that in certain areas rates may go up."

For those at the sharp end of the flood crisis minds were mostly concentrated on the task of getting through the next 12 hours as the Environment Agency predicted only a minor drop in the water levels which had yesterday turned the stately centre of Shrewsbury into an island.

Just one of the town's three main bridges remained open to traffic as the waters reached a midday peak of 5.23 metres. Only the flood of 1946, which hit 5.43 metres, has been worse.

By 6pm yesterday, 41 people had been evacuated from their homes as the flood waters stretched more than 500 metres beyond the banks of the Severn.

Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council, which six years ago abandoned proposals to build a permanent flood-wall through the town after strong local opposition, confirmed it was now considering plans put forward by the Environment Agency to install de-mountable flood defences which could be rapidly erected to head off high water levels.

Such planning, however, was of little comfort to Mr Downes. He said: "I'm rapidly reaching the conclusion that this is fate and I should permanently walk around my house in Wellington boots just in case the river comes for another visit."