Leading article: Plain common sense

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The Independent Online

The fact that yesterday's Green Paper on house building coincided with mass flooding in central England was unfortunate for the Housing minister, Yvette Cooper. But for the rest of us it brought into grim focus the tensions that exist between economic development and the environment.

A political consensus has emerged in recent years that there is an urgent need for more houses to be built in the South-east of England. On the whole, this is right. The demand for housing in the region at present far exceeds supply. This has pushed up house prices to ridiculous levels. As Ms Cooper pointed out, unless the housing supply increases, prices will be 10 times greater than average earnings for the next generation. The gap between supply and demand is already making it almost impossible for many people to get onto the property ladder.

So the Government's Green Paper is right to call for local councils in the South-east to allow a great deal more housing to be built. But, as the wretched events of recent days confirms, it would be folly to build these new homes on flood plains. This is not just because of the huge risk posed to any new housing. There is an environmental knock-on effect to consider. Such development removes a natural barrier to flooding, imperilling developments further away.

To make this argument is not "playing politics" with the present misery of householders, as Ms Cooper argued yesterday, it is merely to state reality. Ministers cannot buck nature. And we must also remember that our vulnerability to such extreme weather events will grow as climate change advances.

The supply of housing in the South-east can be increased without building on flood plains. The solution is greater housing density and more intelligent use of land. And there is even a case for allowing a limited amount of new development on some of the less than pristine green-belt land. The fact is that flood- plain land is often cheap and far enough from existing developments for councils to be able to approve it for development without opposition from existing residents. But, as we are beginning to realise, this is perilously short-sighted.

If the Government is foolish enough to insist on building houses in such vulnerable areas, it must at least commit itself to investing considerable sums on flood defences. It is no good ministers demanding the insurance industry cater for at-risk developments, as they did earlier this month. Insurers are simple pricers of risk. It is up to the Government to reduce that risk, not lean on the insurance industry to alter its calculations. We can only hope that such official irresponsibility has been washed away by this latest deluge.