Nearly one in six homes in the England are at risk of flooding. And the UK is expected to experience increased flooding as climate change worsens. But while government has frameworks in place to prepare for flooding in a changing climate, its plans have come in for criticism.
From a new insurance scheme that doesn’t take into account the effects of climate change to job cuts at a key authority, critics are concerned flood preparation isn’t up to scratch.
The government is aware that flooding is the biggest natural disaster risk that threatens the UK – and that threat is increasing as the world warms. According to its website
“The latest climate projections indicate that sea levels will rise, and there will be increasingly severe and frequent rainstorms. This means the risk of floods will increase.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is spending £7.5 billion to ensure businesses and communities are prepared for the effects of climate change, the most harmful of which is expected to be flooding. The Environment Agency (EA), a Defra affiliated body, administers most of the UK’s flood preparation.
But there appears to be a contradiction in the government’s plans. A new scheme to insure vulnerable homes doesn’t allow for the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency, a Defra body, has prepared to axe 1,700 jobs – which is likely to include staff working on flood planning and defences.
The government is planning an affordable flood insurance scheme for vulnerable houses, spreading risk so insurers can protect these homes without putting their businesses in jeopardy. The government is planning an affordable pool called Flood Re, a reinsurer designed to help insurers spread the worst flood risks, which will help insurers cope with flooding.
The proposed scheme is designed to cover the two per cent of homes most at risk at present. But critics say that the scheme has some important design flaws which could jeopardise the future affordability and availability of insurance.
Swenja Surminski, a senior research fellow at the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute and its Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy , says:
“Our concern is that Flood Re – the way it’s structured and described by government – is disconnected to efforts to getting England more resilient to rising risk levels as the climate changes and population and development levels increase. The first proposals for the scheme didn’t even consider climate change.”
When the Grantham team raised this with Defra, the department reassessed the scheme, Surmanski says. Its response was to say it did not need to plan for increasing risk of flooding, she adds. This is because the Environment Agency’s flood investment programme would ensure the country was protected from increased flooding. This sounds like an odd approach – it bets the farm on the EA’s ability to ward off future flood threats, expecting no extra demand as a result in the future.
“This is unrealistic. Even though government has provided a ‘letter of comfort’ to the insurance industry, stating a commitment to flood defence investment and planning control, I am concerned about lack of implementation and delivery of these promises.”
Surminski and her colleagues say insurance must include mechanisms that encourage adaptation – linking into the government’s other adaptation measures – ensuring the country isn’t encouraged to keep doing things that leave it open to flood risk.
Another development that has caused consternation is news broken by trade journal the ENDS Report, which says 15 per cent of the Environment Agency’s staff are to lose their jobs by 2014. It won’t be clear which services will be hit until next year, but according to ENDS the agency is looking to cut jobs from all areas of operation.
Departments throughout government are cutting staff, but the EA is losing personnel faster than expected. ENDS says that the agency’s chairman, Lord Chris Smith, had told staff cuts would be less severe and over a longer timescale. Such drastic cuts over such a short time don’t bode well for a body that the government expects to be increasingly busy over coming years.
Are we doing enough?
The government has a complex web of plans in place to tackle flooding. National government sets the budget and policy direction; Defra is in charge of policy and legislation and the EA builds and manages flood defences. At a local level, local government is in charge of planning, while local flood authorities are in charge of flood management in their area.
The government also tackles flooding in its ‘adapting to climate change’ programme, also overseen by the EA and Defra. The National Adaptation Programme (NAP) sets out what government, businesses and society are doing to become more climate ready. “The National Adaptation Programme(The National Adaptation Programme)”: report was published on 1 July 2013 and will be reviewed every five years.
Yet the government’s climate change advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), found in 2012 that England’s floodplain has seen more property development than other areas over the past 10 years – and one in five of those properties is at risk of flooding. The CCC said it’s important to start doing things differently, finding better ways to avoid flooding rather than just building houses and trying to protect them from the inevitable.
But while the government’s plans look complicated, Surminski says the real challenge is the implementation. She explains:
“There are some question marks about whether flood protection and adaptation sufficiently funded. Another big question is whether there is enough skilled resource to deal with flood risk. Most local councils have had to cut down flood risk management expertise. And as we saw during the 2007 floods in England, there is still lots of institutional confusion [in responding to floods].”
The addition of an insurance programme that at present does not link in with other efforts to adapt to the UK’s changing climate risks is a missed opportunity. Worse, Surminski says, the scheme may tempt the government to neglect its duty to adapt to climate change. She says:
“Insurance is most effective where nothing else works – where the unexpected has occurred and there’s not much you could have done to prevent it. But it should also trigger behaviour change, especially in the government. It should lead to fewer houses being built on the floodplain, not business as usual, for example.”
“Securing affordable insurance is important, but in the face of rising risk levels you can not achieve this without applying some basic principles: Flood Re needs to work to ensure that all of us understand more about the risks and about ways to address this – individually, through community action or government investment. There’s a social responsibility to address flood risk. Incentives to take action may be reduced by the Flood Re scheme – and that moral hazard must be addressed.”
The article was published on the Carbon Brief blog on December 2013.