Sodden Britain in the grips of wettest winter in 130 years

The period between July and December last year is the wettest on record since 1890

Holly Evans
Friday 05 January 2024 21:10 GMT
Storm Henk: Drone footage shows holiday homes submerged by water

Britain is enduring its wettest winter in 130 years as large parts of the country are submerged in water. More than 300 flood warnings have been issued in the aftermath of Storm Henk, as more than 1,000 properties have been flooded and rivers across the country burst their banks.

Since September, there have been eight named storms – the highest number in a season to be named by the Met Office – with the period between July and December last year being the wettest on record since 1890.

Prof Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading, said the storms have turned the country into a “sopping wet sponge”.

Storm Henk brought a wall of rain across England and Wales, with large parts recording more than 40mm of rain – almost half the average for the month – in just 24 hours on Tuesday, according to the Met Office.

A flooded allotment in Buckhurst Hill, Essex (AFP via Getty Images)

Environment Agency data shows almost every river in England to be exceptionally high with some reaching their highest flow on record, such as the River Itchen in Southampton. Caroline Douglass, the agency’s flood director, said the Trent has been at “some of the highest levels we’ve seen in 24 years”.

The flooding has caused widespread damage with farmers facing huge losses due to rotting crops in waterlogged fields and insurers facing payouts of £560m as a result of Storms Babet, Ciaran and Debi, which have so far prompted nearly 50,000 claims.

Of these costs, £352m is expected to go towards damaged homes, with a further £155m to damaged businesses and £53m for damaged vehicles.

With the average payout for a flooded property currently standing at £36,000, insurers are likely to face another barrage of claims after Storms Gerrit and Henk wreaked havoc over the Christmas period.

Experts warn that the rise in extreme weather will mean home owners could face a surge in renewal premiums, with fewer policies available for those living in coastal areas.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called for compensation and urged the government to make changes to flood defences and introduce support schemes to better protect rural businesses.

Peter Gadd, a farmer in Nottinghamshire and chairman of the NFU’s crops board in the East Midlands, said Storm Babet and Storm Ciaran hit within 10 days of him having sown a crop of wheat and barley – 40 per cent of which washed away before emerging from seed.

He believes he has lost about £14,000 to £15,000 in the current floods, though he can only tally the total once the water has cleared, for which he will receive no compensation or insurance payout.

He said: “We’ve just got to see what we can retrieve in the spring, but many of the crops that have been sown and those that were unharvested that are now under water will not be retrievable.”

A flooded property in Cupar, Fife, in the aftermath of Storm Gerrit (Getty Images)

While the Met Office forecasts drier weather over the weekend, the Environment Agency said ongoing impacts are likely to continue over the next five days as a result of the ground being “completely saturated”.

Describing the rainfall as “well above average” for parts of the country, senior meteorologist Greg Dewhurst said that wetter winters are expected each year as the effects of global warming take hold.

Nottinghamshire County Council declared a major incident on Thursday due to rising levels along the River Trent, with residents of Radcliffe Residential Park, an estate of static caravans for the over-55s, were forced to evacuate.

Another 50 people were led to safety by firefighters in Hackney Wick in east London, after a canal burst its banks, while a party boat sunk in the River Thames.

Parts of England, including Gloucestershire, were also submerged with a range of 20mm to 30mm of rain falling across several southern counties, with a number of cows drowning in the village of Sawley in Derbyshire.

Passengers travelling on train lines including South Western Railway and Great Western Railway faced signficant disruption due to flooding and a serious incident in Reading.

Speaking to The Independent, Martin Lucass, an expert at environmental consultancy Geosmart, said that flooding is likely to worsen in the coming years as a result of climate change causing unpredictable and extreme rainfall.

A party boat sank in the River Thames (PA)

“There are four types of flooding events, and those are ground water, tidal, river which is what we’ve traditionally seen in the UK and increasingly surface flooding which is caused by intense rainfall and is the type that can cause quick property damage. That is the main effect of climate change we’re seeing in the UK,” he said.

The latest data from their flood analysis tool shows that 9 million homes in the UK are at risk of flooding, and estimates the average annual cost of damages totals £1.5bn.

During Storm Babet, thousands of homes and businesses were flooded, with the town of Brechin in Scotland severely affected after defences were overtopped by the river South Esk. Several rail services were cancelled while seven people were killed as a result of wind, rain and floods.

The Radcliffe Residential Park in Nottingham (PA)

Labour has accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” over flood warnings and have called on Rishi Sunak to convene a “Cobra-style taskforce” to protect homes from further damage.

Latest figures from the Association of British Insurers seen by The Independent show that 2023 marked the third year estimated cost of claims relating to bad weather topped the £1bn threshold.

Adam Holland, the Head of Product at AXA UK, said: “Research shows that adverse weather events are becoming more frequent and severe across the UK, which is in turn leading to a rise in the number and severity of insurance claims we receive relating to weather.

Research conducted by AXA found that 24 per cent of people are not currently protected by home insurance, despite 38 per cent of those living in areas susceptible to flooding or extreme weather.

“In the UK, adverse weather can cause expensive damage to your home. If you live close to the sea, high winds are a particular risk because there are often no natural barriers, such as trees, to act as a windbreak so it is important to be prepared,” Mr Holland said.

Claims relating to storm damage were £17.8m in 2023 for AXA, an increase from £12.1m in 2016.

Speaking to the media on the banks of the Trent in Nottingham on Friday afternoon, floods minister Robbie Moore said the government had enough money for flood prevention. Asked if there would be compensation for people affected by the flooding, Mr Moore said the government was “absolutely looking at what measures we can put in place”. He added that the amount of funding for flood resilience plans had been doubled “from £2.6bn to £5.2bn”.

For Carol Watters, the morning of 27 December marked the fifth time her property in Cupar had been flooded by the watercourse at the back of her garden, causing anxiety over future insurance cover.

“We’re fully insured but if this floods again, where will that leave us? We’ve had wind and snow up here, we’re having more rain. Prior to the flood last week, we were always on high alert in extreme weather.

Carol Watters in her flooded home in Cupar (Getty Images)

“As much as we can say the damage has been done to the house, if it floods again it will prolong the entire insurance process. We’ve lived in this house for 24 years, it’s soul destroying.”

Go.Compare’s home insurance expert Ceri McMillan said: “There will be some insurers who will stay we don’t want to insure these houses or areas that are in floodzones, so it may be that while the premiums don’t go up, the number of policies avilable will go down.

“Less people will want to put them on policies and unfortunately they’ll be disadvantaged as the competitiveness of their pricing will go down.”

Experts from the National Infrastructure Commission have warned that extreme weather events such as floods and drought are increasingly more likely as a knock-on effect of climate change.

Flood water inside Kirk and Bill's, a furniture workshop in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire (PA)

Their director of policy, Margaret Read, also issued a warning that the number of properties at risk of flooding was likely to increase by more than a third should temperatures in the UK rise more than 2C.

The UK Health Security Agency has now issued a yellow cold weather alert for this weekend, with the Met Office warning that the cold snap will be caused by high pressure building over the UK, with drivers warned to be cautious of ice.

The UKHSA said: “A brisk easterly wind developing across the south over the weekend will make it feel much colder, with the added wind chill. Temperatures are likely to be a few degrees below average, across much of the UK, especially overnight, with more widespread frosts than of late.”

Met Office spokesperson Oli Claydon said conditions were “turning considerably drier”, adding that the weather service had no rain warnings issued “for the first time in quite a while”.

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